Santa Monica: Air Traffic Control

SMO sunset, photo used with creative commons share alike license from Flickr user Nogwater

The debate over the ultimate fate of Santa Monica Airport (SMO)  is contentious with impassioned views from stakeholders on all sides. More concerned with the state of our ground transportation, I hadn’t given much thought to my own views about the local airport operations or followed very closely the prior discussions on the issue (although it’s impossible to not hear some about it).

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I felt I should get caught up on the issue so I tuned into the council meeting this week for an action packed SMO agenda (video of meeting here). I’m glad that I did, both for getting a sense of what’s the latest going on with the airport, and because nested within the various coalitions for and against SMO are so many of the debates that define other points of contention on land use and transportation within the city.

There were two major agenda items. One to raise the landing fee from $2.07 to $5.48 per thousand pounds, and include planes based out of SMO. The second was to consider alternative scenarios for the airport land in addition to other efforts that might mitigate impacts. In 2015, an agreement from 1984 with the FAA governing a portion of the runway will expire, opening the possibility that the runway could be shortened so that jet aircraft could not use the facility. At times the public comment flowed across both items interchangeably, and was extensive at over 90 requests to speak with overflow seating.

From my observation most voices fell into one of a few camps. There were the pilots and others from the airport who see the fee increase as an unwelcome burden, and talk of an eventual full closure of the airport as a threat to their employment or operations at the facility.

There are residents that are simply fed up with the airport for various reasons from the annoyance of sound to the more serious concerns of leaded fuel emitted so close to dense neighborhoods. However there are some residents and homeowners who split in support of the airport status quo on the assumption that without it the land would become intensely developed and cause more automobile congestion. There are those who view the airport as a critical part of the city’s historic character that should not be lost. Some voices have articulated a vision for a substantial park to be financed by a public bond measure, a one last chance for a truly significant park on the Westside that isn’t a golf course.

City of Los Angeles council member Bill Rosendahl kicked the comments off with the 1st request to speak, making sharply clear his stance that full closure of the airport be pursued, decrying the sound and air pollution impacts of the flight paths over his constituents. He was quickly followed by a string of speakers championing the airport and decrying the fee proposal as too great an impact on their business operations. That was then followed by a string of area residents against.

The rest of the evening flowed back and forth, with I would have to say the edge in favor of those against in attendance despite a strong showing of airport supporters. Former Santa Monica mayor and council member Mike Feinstein of the Green Party, came out in favor of short term mitigation measures and a long term vision of a park, remarking that this is an “intergenerational opportunity” toward sustainability and closing his statements with “Occupy SMO”. Santa Monica resident Michael Brodsky, who has been very active in supporting bicycling in the city, was one of the few who pushed for closure on the grounds of reducing CO2 emissions that are very high per passenger mile in private jets.

During the deliberation by the council regarding the landing fee, council member Ted Winterer asked city manager Rod Gould about the operational deficit of the airport, and the current debt owed to the city. Gould confirmed that number as $13.3 million dollars currently owed, and expected subsidies that were already in the current 2 year budget. I had a pretty good feeling where it was going from there and was not surprised when following comments from Gleam Davis that other special use services in the city have had their fees raised to balance the budget, the council passed the new landing fee unanimously. The fee does not go into effect immediately, and one unsettled matter regarding it that will be discussed later is possible exemptions for emergency aircraft services that occasionally land at SMO.

The council also unanimously passed a motion to have staff explore all possible options including partial or full closure of the facility. Should the council eventually decide to scale back the airport, a fight with the FAA is likely, and some public speakers had argued that millions spent in lawsuits would eat up the revenue generated by the fees. However, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie assured the council that current staff are prepared to handle such contention with minimal outside consulting that would effect the budget.

Regardless of the politics, the future of aviation generally is going to be one defined more by contraction than expansion in the years and decades ahead. Energy dense liquid fuel, which aviation is incredibly dependent on isn’t getting any cheaper. If we finally decide to take carbon emission concerns seriously it may get more costly still. So I consider it prudent to at least start considering a framework for how the airport land might transition to other potential public uses, or various hybrid proposals, in the future.

Subsidizing the operation costs of the Big Blue Bus, which often serves more than 70,000 rides daily and connects Santa Monica and it’s neighboring areas with far greater space and energy efficiency than driving at low personal fare cost, that’s one thing. The SMO status quo today seems to be largely defined by jet set convenience for the hyper privileged trying to skip traffic from LAX and hobbyists that can afford the growing fuel cost to get airborne. If the airport is to continue operating, it should be able to do so without ongoing operating subsidy or unpaid for capital investment from the city budget. The new fee is a step in that direction.

Listening to a few of the public speakers who had expressed utmost concern over the safety of airport operations near so many homes, I also couldn’t help but lament that more people don’t come out so strongly to support traffic calming measures for our far more deadly and damaging ground transportation system. So often as a society we say that no compromise must be made when public safety is on the line, but compromising public safety is at the heart of our car culture by design.

I am interested in seeing what ultimately happens with the airport, and it is the last opportunity for a public park of a grand scale in a park poor area of the region bordering with Los Angeles, an idea I can definitely get behind. However in my capacity as a local advocate, the mess on the ground is still where my greater concern remains.