The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wasted no time in responding to the new Santa Monica ordinance banning the larger, faster “Category C and D” jet aircraft from Santa Monica Airport (SMO), set to go into effect April 24. After the City Council adopted the ordinance late in the evening on Tuesday, March 25 (already after midnight in Washington, D.C.), the FAA issued a nine-and-a-half-page, single-spaced (with 11 footnotes) Order to Show Cause on March 26, directing the City to respond within 10 days and explain why the federal agency should not supplement and expedite an existing investigation to an “initial determination.”
Mayor Katz told the Mirror, “We gave [the FAA] more than a fair hearing” at the March 25 Council meeting – “a lot of time. We were very fair.” Saying that he had been told the FAA thought the City had prejudged the proposal put forth by the agency on March 25, Katz said that the speed with which the FAA issued the Order to Show Cause showed that “they prejudged it; we didn’t.”
The Order to Show Cause re-starts, broadens, and expedites an existing administrative investigation that was initiated by the FAA in October 2002 after the Santa Monica Airport Commission recommended that the City Council adopt an Aircraft Conformance Program to address safety issues at SMO; the investigation had been put on hold while the City negotiated those issues with the FAA over the more than six years since that time.
New issues in the investigation, according to the Order to Show Cause, include whether the new ordinance “is consistent with the [City’s] federal obligation” to operate SMO “without unjust discrimination,” and whether the ordinance is “preempted under Federal Law,” “consistent with the terms of the 1984 Agreement” that settled earlier litigation between the City and the FAA, and “consistent with the Surplus Property Act deed covenants” by which SMO was deeded back to the City after World War II.
Reviewing the six years of negotiations between the City and the FAA, the Order to Show Cause complains that the proposals put forward by the City “would have a significant impact on the utility of the Airport,” echoing the emphasis on utility rather than safety that was clear in the March 25 City Council presentation by FAA Associate Administrator for Airports Kirk Shaffer.
Once the City files its 10-day response to the Order to Show Cause, it will be the FAA that decides whether that response shows enough cause that the investigation not be supplemented and expedited. If the FAA decides that it does not, the investigation will be expedited toward the issuance of “the initial determination” – also made by the FAA – according to FAA Western Pacific Region spokesman Ian Gregor. What happens beyond that, Gregor would not say.
City Manager Lamont Ewell said that the City’s response to the Order to Show Cause would be coordinated through the City Attorney’s office, which would work with the Washington, D.C. lawyers expert in aviation mattersthat have been retained by the City. Calling the FAA’s position “obstinate,” Ewell said the City needs a solution that includes runway safety at both ends of the runway. “If we’re not even in compliance with the standards of the FAA [which provide for the Runway Safety Areas sought by the City], it not only exposes our residents [to danger], but it exposes the City to liability.”
Airport Manager Robert Trimborn called the 10-day limit for the City to respond “to a fairly intense request” set by the FAA “Draconian,” and said that he was “amazed” that the agency put together the Order to Show Cause “15 hours after Shaffer’s presentation” to the City Council.
The new FAA Order acknowledges that, under its own regulations, SMO has an Airport Reference Code (ARC) designation of B-II, meaning that it was designed to accommodate Category A and B aircraft (based on approach speeds) and Category I and II aircraft (based on wing span).
But the Order goes on to argue that “the ARC design category of an airport is not intended, and cannot be used, to limit operations of an airport…. While the design category and geometry of an airport are useful in airport planning, the FAA does not consider it inherently unsafe for an aircraft of a larger design category to utilize an airport that has been designed to accommodate a lesser design category of aircraft.”
With particular reference to Runway Safety Areas (RSAs), the Order to Show Cause argues, “RSAs are problematic at SMO because they need to be level, and the land drops off at the end of the runways at SMO. However, the RSA standard is part of FAA’s airport design standards, and is not an operating requirement of condition.”
Speaking with the Mirror immediately after the City Council adopted the ordinance and before the FAA order was issued, Trimborn responded to this kind of argument divorcing design standards from operating standards by saying that it made no sense. If you design a road for passenger cars weighing x pounds and traveling at 40 miles per hour, he posited, and years later the road becomes a thoroughfare for cement trucks weighing 4x pounds traveling 60 miles per hour, you have to do something, he reasoned.
It seems apparent that in the case of SMO (or Trimborn’s road, for that matter) the “something” is either re-design the airport/road or regulate the aircraft/vehicles that use it.