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Airport Safety:

Takeoff and landing safety at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) took center stage at a meeting of the City’s Airport Commission on Monday evening, March 26. Brian Armstrong, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Los Angeles Airports District Office, seemed caught in a crossfire as he fielded questions and criticisms from both city commissioners on the dais and the public audience during a Commission “workshop” on proposed runway safety enhancements at SMO.

The public exchange between the City and the FAA is the most recent chapter in a long-standing and sometimes strained discussion of safety issues, in which the federal agency has often been perceived as caring more about the convenience of aviators and of distributing air traffic than about the safety of local residents. Monday night’s session is the first occasion on which an FAA representative has directly addressed either the Airport Commission or the Santa Monica public; in prior chapters, the FAA has dealt only with SMO staff.

Historical Overview

SMO Airport Director Robert Trimborn provided the context for the evening’s discussion and explained the “workshop” format as a technical presentation to the Airport Commission regarding proposed runway safety enhancements at SMO.

Although SMO has been around since 1917, it was in the mid-1980s that the airport was designed according to what the FAA calls “category B-2 standards.” Airplanes are categorized A through E according to their approach speed at maximum certified gross landing weight (E being the highest), and they are also categorized 1 through 4 according to their wing span (4 being the largest). In the mid-1980s, the “design aircraft” for SMO – the most demanding category that had more than 500 “operations” per year (a takeoff or a landing is an “operation”) – was category B-2.

Over the last 20 years, the fleet mix of aircraft at SMO has changed – for a variety of reasons summarized by Trimborn – and there are now many more “bigger, faster” airplanes using the same 5,000-foot runway at SMO, so that today’s “design aircraft” is category D-2 at an airport designed for category B-2.

The City became concerned about runway safety issues, and in 2002 the City Council suggested that the airport be restricted to B-2 aircraft. The FAA responded to this suggestion by initiating an administrative proceeding to enjoin the City from implementing its proposed Aircraft Conformance Program. (Although the City owns the airport and “maintains and operates” the facility, the FAA controls access to the airport, and federal approval is required for any runway safety enhancements.)

The City’s Proposal

For five years now, SMO staff (making reports to, and obtaining direction from, the Airport Commission and City Council) have been dealing with the FAA in an effort to address runway safety. Under FAA guidelines, an airport with category D-2 design aircraft should have a runway safety area (RSA) of 1,000 feet of tarmac – for airplanes overshooting the runway or other emergency conditions – at each end of the runway. Santa Monica Airport basically has none. Or, as Stacy Brown of West LA said at Monday’s workshop, “The present RSAs are a whole lot of houses and at least one gas station [meaning the Union 76 station across Bundy from the east end of the runway].”

The recommended RSA for an airport with category B-2 design aircraft is 300 feet at either end of the runway. FAA guidelines allow for alternatives to these recommended RSAs, one of which is the use of EMAS (Engineered Mass Arresting System) – a much shorter distance at the end of the runway that is covered not with standard tarmac but with a special sort-of-soft-concrete surface perhaps two feet thick that is crushed by the weight of an airplane and thereby “arrests” its forward movement.

The City has proposed an EMAS surface of about 250 feet at the west end of the runway and a “declared distance” limitation of 600 feet at the east end of the runway that would not alter the physical runway itself but would limit the space available for takeoffs and landings. Armstrong of the FAA said that the agency favored 165 feet of EMAS (including a lead-in area) at the west end and a lesser “declared distance” limitation at the east end.

The safety areas proposed by Santa Monica might limit the amount of fuel (weight) that certain airplanes could carry, thereby limiting the range that they could fly without refueling.

Airport Director Trimborn introduced Steve Benson of Coffman Associates, which conducted a study of design standards for the City, and Kevin Quan of ESCO, which manufactures the EMAS product. But the appearance of FAA representative Armstrong captured the attention of the Commission and the public. The audience rumbled when he referred to the safety concerns of aviators without mentioning the safety of residents.

Commission chair Mark Young asked whether Santa Monica Airport was unique, with residences within 220 feet of the airport on all sides, and Armstrong responded that it was not unique, but was hard pressed to name another airport so situated.

The Airport Commission will report to the City Council, and the runway safety discussions between Santa Monica and the FAA will no doubt continue.

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