After five years of City attempts to negotiate airport safety issues with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the City Council voted Tuesday, November 27, to adopt an ordinance prohibiting “Category C or D aircraft” from landing at or taking off from Santa Monica Airport (SMO). The unanimous vote came after the City received a letter from the FAA earlier that same day calling the then-proposed ordinance “flatly illegal” and threatening “to expeditiously use its authority and all available means” to prevent implementation of such a City law.
Category C and D aircraft are planes with approach speeds of 121 knots or more, as compared to category A and B aircraft which have approach speeds of less than 121 knots. The City owns and operates the airport, but its operations are subject to FAA regulation.
Mayor Richard Bloom said before the vote was cast, “This is not a decision that any of us takes lightly,” and acknowledged that it would almost certainly put the City in costly litigation. But, he added, “Our course here is very, very clear.”
Also before the vote was taken, Kathryn Vernez of the City Manager’s office informed the Council that a meeting had been set for December 5 in Washington, D.C. among city officials, the FAA, and four U.S. Representatives, including Henry Waxman and Jane Harman, to pursue administrative and legislative solutions to safety issues at SMO.
The subject has garnered national attention, with the New York Times running a lengthy article on SMO in its November 24 edition, though that story addressed noise and air pollution issues more than the runway safety addressed by the ordinance.
Acting Airport Director Robert Trimborn presented the staff recommendation that the ordinance be adopted, stressing that the law did nothing more than enforce existing FAA safety regulations. The airport is classified by the federal government as a B-II airport suitable for use by category A and B aircraft, but has experienced growing numbers of bigger, faster category C and D aircraft using the facility. This has created concerns of overruns at the ends of the runway.
Referring to SMO’s location on a plateau which drops off steeply at each end of the runway, hills rising to the east, and the presence of homes within 300 feet of the runway ends, Trimborn said, “No other airport in the country has these unique circumstances.” In his written report to the Council, he wrote: “Thus, landings and take offs at the Airport have been likened to aircraft operations on an aircraft carrier. There is little or no margin for error.”
FAA safety standards call for Runway Safety Areas (RSAs) at either end of runways – for category C and D aircraft the standard is 1,000 feet at each end. SMO has none. Because category A and B aircraft require less runway, the standard 300-foot RSAs for those airplanes could be accommodated.
Trimborn said that the ordinance would not have a significant impact on noise and it would not ban jets. It merely confirms a 2002 City Council vote approving an Aircraft Conformance Program that has been the subject of negotiations between the City and the FAA ever since.
The FAA Letter
The FAA letter was signed by Associate Administrator of Airports D. Kirk Shaffer, who had addressed the City Council in August of this year. It called the ordinance an “unreasonable denial of access to an important federally-obligated reliever airport in our national system,” thereby fueling the perception that the FAA cares only about the convenience of private airplane users and not about the safety of neighbors.
In August, Shaffer proposed much shorter RSAs for SMO with an Engineered Materials Arresting System (EMAS) – a special sort-of-soft-concrete surface that is crushed by the weight of an airplane and slows it down – a proposal that Trimborn says “would not even come close to meeting the FAA’s own published standards for safety areas for Category C and D aircraft.” In his letter received by the City Tuesday, Shaffer wrote: “Let me speak very frankly, ladies and gentlemen. What you are considering by this proposed ordinance is flatly illegal as drafted.”
The Washington Meeting
Vernez said that the Santa Monica delegation would meet with the FAA and with U.S. Representatives Henry Waxman, Jane Harman, James Oberstar, and John Mica. Waxman represents California’s 30th District which includes Santa Monica, while Harman represents the 36th District which includes Mar Vista and Venice. Both Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Mica (R-Fla.) serve on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
After the Council’s vote on the ordinance, Trimborn told the Mirror that the Santa Monica delegation would consist of himself, City Manager Lamont Ewell, Vernez, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, and Deputy City Attorney Martin Tachiki. They will attempt to find administrative and/or legislative solutions to the safety issues addressed by the ordinance.
Before voting, the City Council heard public comments on the proposed City law. Nine residents spoke in favor of the ordinance; three SMO tenants voiced opposition, saying that they had invested in their businesses at the airport in reliance on its accessibility to Category C and D aircraft.
Among those supporting the ordinance, Zina Josephs reported that the Friends of Sunset Park board had voted to support it and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City had emailed its support. Gwen Rinehart commented that the $1,000 fine for violation of the ordinance was too low – it “seems like nothing more than a generous tip from a high roller in Vegas” – and Jerry Rubin suggested renaming the FAA the Federal Arrogance Administration. Lorraine Sanchez urged the Council to “stand up to the FAA – Do not be deterred.”
Which is exactly what the Council did. The councilmembers’ comments made it clear that they understood exactly what they were doing. If the FAA letter had any effect on their vote, it was only to strengthen their resolve.
The City Council took particular offense at Shaffer’s suggestion in the letter that Santa Monica consider purchasing the homes at the ends of the runway so as to create a runway protection zone (RPZ) as “the only certain way to remove all risk of harm to persons or property on the ground in those areas.” Santa Monica is striving to increase housing whenever possible, the Council said, not destroy housing. Bob Holbrook imagined the scene of gutted neighborhoods adjacent to LAX.
This was the “first reading” of the ordinance. It will come back before the Council for a “second reading” and vote before it is officially enacted, but the firmness of the Council’s resolve left little room for doubt as to the outcome unless something extraordinary happens in Washington on December 5.
Bobby Shriver, acting in his role of what he called “expectation management,” cautioned the public not to expect Category C and D aircraft to stop landing at SMO in the very near future, inasmuch as he expects the FAA to seek an administrative or judicial stay of the ordinance pending the litigation to come. He urged the public to communicate with their federal officials.
The gauntlet has been thrown down on the tarmac. But as Ken Genser observed Tuesday night, “It’s going to be a long road.”