In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Federal Aviation Administration told a local group of concerned citizens they will have to pay a $100,000 fee to view and distribute information collected from a six-month flight-test period from Santa Monica Airport.
Neighbors for Safe and Healthy Community, a group formed in the wake of a recent plane crash into Penmar Golf Course that killed 60-year-old student pilot Robert Ralsey Davenport, requested data for all flights for about a nine-month period at SMO. Davenport flew a single-propeller plane that may have experienced trouble while practicing landings at Santa Monica Airport, before crashing into the golf course bordering Santa Monica and Venice.
“I wonder whose house that plane would have crashed into had the FAA experiment gone on another month?” commented Dana Abrams, a Sunset Park resident, on smmirror.com.
The flight test path required the same type of single-propeller planes to fly at a 250-degree angle towards the Santa Monica Pier and over many homes and schools. The FAA reports the test affected at-most 15 planes a day, but resident complaints claim upwards of 20 planes were overhead an hour. Representatives said any deviation by an aircraft would be an internal matter between the pilot and the FAA, which directs all planes leaving the airport.
The group wants to compare FAA and resident reports to ensure all information is released and accurate. The FAA denied the request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) claiming the acting group was a “narrow segment of interested parties.” Media or action groups often obtain withheld information by use of the FOIA, enacted to allow greater public access to federal government records.
More than 1,500 residents are taking part in the request, according to the action group.
The FAA responded in a written statement by saying it retained data from the six-month test for only a 45-day period. To expunge the usable information from specific flight test recordings, an employee must pull the information by listening, for a fee of $82 per hour, from an audio recording of 24 hours per day from the SMO control tower. With these calculations, the FAA will bill the group $100,000 upfront.
This is still a tremendous effort that will take over 1,100 hours of work time to filter, said FAA representative Kathleen Bergen. The agency will charge for segregating information for security purposes, she said, such as military or Air Force One flight movement.
“It’s a voluminous amount of information,” Bergen said. “It is not a small request for a lot of info that would require a lot of staff time to review that data.”
Bergen said the FAA will use the information for internal review of the flight test, which will include the thousands of noise complaints from the community.
Sunset Park resident Tom Paccioretti said such a plane crash was never a question of if, but a question of when. The 15-year resident has been working with the neighborhood group to obtain information that he said affects the public at large, despite FAA insistence to withhold the data. He also worries about planes crashing into homes or apartments costing safety in the demand for efficiency.
FAA administration has said the flight test deviated smaller planes away from LAX increasing efficiency and saving tens of millions of dollars for the large airport.
“There is a lot of freedom given to pilots, a lot more that I knew about before I got involved,” Paccioretti said. “Not sure if I agree with that freedom, but that is the nature of the beast.”
Bergen said requestors are free to file an appeal or embrace the opportunity to “narrow the scope” to fewer days. Pending review of the data the FAA will decide the flight path’s fate. If the agency finds the flight path makes “no significant impact” on the community, the tested path could be made permanent.