Santa Monica's flight fight is being closely watched
The city's effort to ban jets that land at high speeds could be adopted elsewhere. The FAA has been granted an injunction to stop the rule from taking effect.
A Gulfstream IV comes in for a landing at Santa Monica Municipal Airport. Local leaders and the Federal Aviation Administration are locked in a legal battle over the citys unprecedented attempt to ban such high-performance jets for safety reasons. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Fully fueled, the sophisticated jets with their plush interiors can fly 16 executives coast to coast at speeds of up to 527 mph -- about 0.80 on the Mach meter, not far from the speed of sound.
The twin-engine aircraft and others like it have become increasingly popular across the country -- but not at Santa Monica Airport. There, local leaders and the Federal Aviation Administration are locked in a legal battle over the city's unprecedented attempt to ban certain high-performance jets for safety reasons.
The dispute is being closely watched by the aviation industry and national organizations that represent charter services, jet time-shares, aviation-related businesses and other aircraft owners. They include such companies as Flexjet and NetJets as well as the National Air Transportation Assn. and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn.
If Santa Monica prevails in court, opponents fear other cities will impose similar restrictions and divert flights to alternative airports that already are grappling with capacity issues.
"There have not been any restrictions like this on a jet type in the United States," said Bill Dunn, a vice president in charge of airport advocacy for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. "This is a very important issue. There have been other bans, but those were noise-based."
After six years of fruitless discussions with the FAA, Santa Monica, which has owned the airport since the early 1920s, approved an ordinance late last year to ban jets with approach speeds of 139 to 191 mph. A federal judge has kept the ban from being implemented.
The restriction affects such aircraft as the Gulfstream IV, Bombardier Challenger 604 and Cessna Citation X, which account for about 9,000 takeoffs and landings a year at Santa Monica, or about 7% of all flight operations, many of them trips taken by corporate executives.
The ban could affect them as well as celebrities and notables, like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who regularly flies into Santa Monica aboard a Gulfstream IV.
City officials say the 4,973-foot runway is better suited to slower aircraft and lacks safety zones for faster jets -- posing a significant threat to homeowners and businesses near the ends of the airfield. Some houses are 250 to 300 feet from the runway.
"We shouldn't have to wait for an accident to happen before we do something," said Robert D. Trimborn, the airport's manager. "All we want to do is create the safest conditions we can under FAA standards."
Federal officials say that the city cannot legally restrict access and that measures are available to improve the airport's safety. City officials consider these only partial solutions.
If the ban were to go into effect, the FAA contends that it would affect about 20,000 to 30,000 passengers a year, who would have to go to other local airports, including Los Angeles International Airport.
"Litigation is always the last resort for us," said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman. "But when our efforts to resolve this dispute amicably failed, litigation was required to protect our system of airports."
In late April, the FAA served the city with a cease-and-desist order and obtained a temporary restraining order against the ban in federal court.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge George Wu granted the FAA a preliminary injunction to prevent the ban from going into effect until a court decides whether it is legal.
FAA officials contend the city cannot restrict high-speed jets under federal law and the terms of federal grants worth $9.7 million that Santa Monica received between 1985 and 1994.
They say that under the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, airport officials, airport users and the federal government must agree before a type of aircraft can be banned.
Government attorneys say the Surplus Property Act applies because the federal government leased the airport during World War II and returned it with conditions to the city in 1948.
Both the transfer documents and the grant provisions require that the airport be made available for public use under reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds and classes of aviation-related activities.
The FAA further asserts that high-speed jets have operated safely at Santa Monica for almost 20 years. Some planes have overshot the end of the runway, the government notes, but those have involved other types of aircraft.
Federal officials also say the city has rejected reasonable safety measures, such as the removal of homes near the airport and the installation of soft pavement at the ends of the runway to stopout-of-control aircraft.
"We still hope to settle this issue through an agreement with the city and not through the court process," Gregor said. "We remain ready, willing and able to implement any of the proposals that we have previously presented to the city."
Santa Monica contends federal law allows cities to impose safety conditions on airports if they are "fair, equal and not unjustly discriminatory." The ban, city officials say, resulted from years of study and represents a significant safety improvement over the FAA's proposals.
Operators and passengers can easily use other types of jets, the city states in court documents. "Homeowners cannot trade for a safer home as fliers may trade aircraft."
Santa Monica officials said the FAA's safety proposals won't stop the jets under certain conditions. They also say new airfields that handle high-speed jets are required to have 1,000-foot buffer zones at the ends of runways.
The city cites James Hall, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aviation accidents. He stated in a court declaration that jets with higher landing speeds should not be allowed to operate at Santa Monica because the runway does not meet federal standards.
Although the faster jets have operated without incident at Santa Monica, city officials say there have been several runway accidents involving corporate jets elsewhere.
Four people were killed in January 2006 when a small jet skidded off the west end of the runway at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad.
In February 2005, an improperly loaded corporate jet hurtled off a runway in Teterboro, N.J., while trying to take off. Fifteen people were injured.
At their home on Navy Street in Sunset Park, Ellen and Stephen Mark and their neighbors wonder when a jet will overshoot Santa Monica's runway and explode into their tree-lined block. Their house and others are situated about 40 feet below the west end of the airport, which sits on a plateau, above 23rd Street.
When they bought their house about 10 years ago, they said they knew the airport was there but chose to put up with it because the city schools were good and the home affordable.
Now, they say jet flights at Santa Monica have increased to the point where they cannot be ignored any longer. Jet operations have more than doubled, from 7,559 in 1998 to 18,100 in 2006.
"There is no margin for error," said Stephen Mark, a film editor. "The planes may be technically safe, and the pilots are competent. But no one thought there would be a Category 5 hurricane in New Orleans or the Titanic would sink. It takes just one accident, and you have a catastrophe."
Unfortunately, FAA officials say, Mark's home is among scores of houses and commercial properties approved by the city over the decades despite the dangers, noise and potential for flight operations to increase.
Urban encroachments like this, they say, are a growing problem across the country and threaten safety as well as access to airports for private pilots, charter services, jet time-shares and business.
Indeed, the city has approved homes and businesses near Santa Monica Airport, many of them built to accommodate workers at Douglas Aircraft Co. during the 1940s and '50s. The sprawling plant was next to the runway until the firm moved to Long Beach.
But Santa Monica officials dispute whether planning decisions made before the corporate jet age are responsible for the present situation.
"Douglas used the field during World War II. It was a different world then," said Mayor Herb Katz. "No one foresaw all these business jets back then. You can't blame us for the housing decisions of the 1940s."