A change in flight paths for the Santa Monica Airport in the last five months has residents clamoring. As the test period for those changes reaches its conclusion, the City and its residents are gearing up to make sure that the program doesn’t continue, but hopes for more than just that.
The Santa Monica Airport (SMO) has been steeped in controversy for years in terms of noise, safety, and struggles with the government agencies. The Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) Departure test adds fuel to that fire.
Since December 2009, planes leaving SMO have changed route as part of a 180-day flight test that will continue until June. Instead of heading to the shoreline before turning 40 degrees, planes now turn after reaching 400 feet causing the planes to fly near the Penmar Golf Course and towards the Santa Monica Pier. This means heavy flight traffic on a daily basis over a large number of residences, many in Sunset Park and Ocean Park neighborhoods.
These residents are fighting back by bombarding the City, the airport and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with complaints. Janet Tunick claims to have sent more than 1300 noise complaints in the last two weeks. Tiiu Lukk, who lives on Ashland Avenue in Sunset Park, has been keeping a log of when he was “bothered by the overwhelming noise” by planes passing overhead. He logged 15 planes, including three jets, in a matter of three hours.
“It almost feels at times like you could pull the planes from the sky,” said Joanne Segal, a resident on Hill Street in Sunset Park.
She said thanks to the flight path change it’s “completely different” than when planes went over Penmark Golf Course directly. Although the proximity of the neighborhood gets the brunt of the experience, she said many neighborhoods in the 90405 ZIP code are being affected. Aside from the nuisance of the planes, many are concerned about safety factors.
In the last week, the City said it will “aggressively pursuing all avenues” to ensure a full environmental impact study is performed before any permanent change is made to the Piston-Powered Instrument Flight Rules.
Congressman Henry Waxman, whose district represents Santa Monica, has also swooped into the dogfight. He wrote a scathing letter this week addressed to the FAA calling for a suspension of the flight test. His involvement is a significant pull for the campaign as the City and the airport hold very little political power over the FAA.
In his letter to the FAA, Waxman called the lack of public outreach “unacceptable” and proposed a reevaluation of the test, which would include a public process.
The City and residents attest that the FAA declined to hold a formal public briefing before implementing the flight changes, which Robert Trimborn, director of SMO, said the City requested. The City “took the high road” by creating a staff report available to view on the airport website www.smgov.net.
Representatives from the FAA have a polar opposite stance than the city’s claim. Before implementing the test, FAA regional administrator and air traffic representatives met with the airport director and staff, as well as the city manager, city attorney and member of the city’s airport board, said Ian Gregor, FAA Western-Pacific Region communications manager, in an email to the Mirror. Local media was contacted, he said, and a mid-term update on the test results have been posted to the airport Website.
“The suggestion that the public was somehow kept in the dark about this test is completely false,” Gregor said. “Public meetings are not the only way to do public outreach. However, if the City felt that a public meeting was appropriate, they were free to hold a public meeting on their own.”
Until the FAA review’s Waxman’s letter, Gregor withheld any formal comments.
The test is being conducted in accordance with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Deputy Attorney Ivan Campbell explained that the test is part of a determination by the FAA to see if an environmental review is even necessary. The review would require an environmental impact report, which is a lengthy and detailed process that requires public input.
The Federal Aviation Administration determined the close proximity of flight paths between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and SMO is 2.9 miles, 0.1 mile short of the required three miles of separation. In order to comply with these standards, air carriers leaving LAX are held on ground for six to 12 minutes until the slower moving aircrafts departing SMO can be directed from the LAX departing flight. The path change is an attempt to remedy this negative impact.
Trimborn is quick to point out that the City does not regulate air traffic, a point the FAA has been trying to make in the court system since the ‘80s. Trimborn explained that the federal government establishes air standards, which includes noise standards.
The airport is very technical when measuring noise levels, he said, and SMO “does not exceed federal standards for noise exposure.” The airport is unique in not only the proximity to neighbors, but also that it claims to have “the strictest local airport ordinances,” according to the Website. A curfew limits flights between 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday through Friday and 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. Saturday and Sundays.
SMO is collecting all complaints, which will be compiled and sent monthly to the FAA for review. The public is encouraged to contact Airport staff at (310) 458-8692 or to firstname.lastname@example.org to report noise complaints and any other issues about the test. Complaints may be actionable under municipal code, for example if the route violates the noise abatement ordinance by being too loud.
Santa Monica residents will have until June 15 for public comment.
Mirror Staff Reporterkatherine@smmirror.com