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Santa Monica plane crash: Some say airport should ban jets or close

Air Transportation DisastersTransportation DisastersNational Transportation Safety BoardBill RosendahlTransportation Industry

The jet crash that set a hangar ablaze late Sunday and is presumed to have killed at least two passengers is adding fuel to some longstanding calls to severely reduce activity at the Santa Monica Airport or close it altogether.

Fire officials said the crash occurred when a twin-engine Cessna Citation veered off the right side of the runway and slammed into a nearby storage hangar.

Both the hangar and the jet burst into flames and the hangar collapsed, officials said, adding that the crash was not survivable.

Mark Benjamin, 63, and his son, Luke, 28, were believed killed when the jet crashed. Coroner's officials had yet to retrieve bodies from the charred wreckage of the crash Monday morning as crews worked to secure the site.

Van McKenny, an investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters Monday that crews “absolutely plan” on being able to access the fuselage and any victims inside once the site is secured tonight.

The accident has set off a chorus of concerns from residents who live near the airport, Santa Monica city officials and politicians across Southern California. Debate about the safety, environmental impact and noise issues at the airport have long raged in the seaside town.

Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes the Westside, rattled off a long list of plane crashes involving Santa Monica Airport dating to when his predecessor Bill Rosendahl was running for office in 2004.

“I have long thought that the airport should be shut down, and I feel the same way today,” Bonin said. “The airport is a proven danger to nearby residents both from the risk of crashes and from growing evidence of pollution and emissions from the jet fuel. Sadly, this is déjà vu all over again.”

David Goddard, chairman of the Santa Monica Airport Commission, stopped short of calling for full closure of the airport because he said current agreements may force the city to operate the airport in perpetuity. But he said he hopes the crash serves as "a wakeup call."

"When a tragedy like this happens, we don’t want to emotionally react to it and do something contrary to our agreements that is just going to end up in more litigation,” Goddard said. "We want to take a reasonable, measured approach to reduce the operations.”

The City Council has already implemented landing fees, he said, adding that he hopes officials will now consider adopting a rule that would reduce operations even further.

In a statement, Santa Monica Deputy City Manager Kate Vernez said the city is “in the process of evaluating potential options for the airport’s future” as a settlement agreement with the FAA winds toward its expiration in 2015.

“City Council has directed staff to return to council in March of 2014,” the statement said. “Options likely to be discussed then range from operational restrictions or reductions to partial or full closure. However, any decisions about the future of the airport will eventually be made within the context of a complex jurisdictional and legal context.”

State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said the city should not renew its lease with the FAA in 2015 and, in effect, ban jets from using the airport.

“It was never designed for jet planes,” Lieu said. “It started as an airport for propeller planes.” Sunday's crash, he added, “shows the potential dangers.”

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Twitter: @MattStevensLAT

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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Air Transportation DisastersTransportation DisastersNational Transportation Safety BoardBill RosendahlTransportation Industry
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