Court rejects Santa Monica’s effort to ban fast jets from its airport
Efforts to ban high-performance jets from Santa Monica Municipal Airport suffered another setback Friday when an appeals court ruled in favor of a federal order permitting such aircraft to use the popular facility.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington rejected a request by the city to review the Federal Aviation Administration decision to disallow a ban on jets with fast landing speeds.
The Santa Monica City Council had voted for the ban in late 2007. The restriction would have prohibited jets with approach speeds of 139 to 191 mph from operating at the airport. The banned aircraft would have included larger and more powerful Gulfstreams, Bombardier Challengers and Cessna Citations.
Although other types of planes that use the Santa Monica airport have worse safety records, city officials said the ban was needed because the faster aircraft could overshoot the 4,973-foot runway and crash into nearby residential neighborhoods with devastating effect.
In its 19-page decision, the court rebuffed the city’s request for a hearing into the FAA’s decision to halt the ban on the grounds that the restriction violated federal law and contractual agreements with the federal government.
The court backed the FAA, stating that the agency’s decision “was not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”
FAA officials assert that they have exclusive jurisdiction over airport safety and that the city is legally obligated to make the airport available for public use under reasonable terms and without unjustly discriminating against aircraft types.
They also cited studies showing that high-speed jets have operated safely at Santa Monica for almost 20 years and that even if such jets ran off the end of the runway, it was unlikely they would crash into neighborhoods. Planes have crashed at the airport and overshot the runway, the studies show, but those incidents have involved other types of aircraft.
“Although [Santa Monica] disputes some of the FAA’s conclusions, there is no evidence that the FAA based its conclusions on irrelevant factors or that the FAA made a clear error in judgment,” the court stated.
The ruling is a major setback for city officials and community groups that have fought for several years to ban high-performance jets, which they contend are too fast for the airport.
“I am disappointed, but not surprised,” said Cathy Larson, the airport committee chairwoman for Friends of Sunset Park, a neighborhood association. “This is not your average general aviation airport. It is embedded in a residential community with homes within 300 feet of the runway. I am afraid we won’t see any safety improvements until an accident happens.”
The controversy has attracted the attention of the aviation industry and national organizations that represent charter services, jet time-share companies, aviation-related businesses, pilots and other aircraft owners. The groups include the National Air Transportation Assn. and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn.
They say the legal fight is a test of whether airport operators can challenge their contractual obligations with the FAA. If Santa Monica prevails, they contend, it could affect aircraft owners and aviation companies across the country.
“The city was really pushing the envelope of what they could do,” said Bill Dunn, vice president of local airport advocacy for the aircraft owners and pilots group. “We hope they see the handwriting on the wall. They did not prevail on one issue.”
FAA officials declined to comment on the decision except to say that they have always been confident in their legal position. FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said, however, that the agency remains “ready, willing and able” to help Santa Monica pay for safety improvements.
City officials have rejected the FAA’s offers in the past, saying they would be inadequate for high-speed jets.
“We gave our best effort to punch holes in the FAA’s decision. We do not think they met their burden,” said Deputy City Atty. Ivan Campbell, who worked on the case. “Our office and city staff have spent thousands of hours over the years to ensure the safety of airport users and the surrounding community. We are proud of that effort and we would do it again.”
Campbell said Santa Monica officials would weigh their options and decide how to proceed. Among other things, they could ask the appeals court to reconsider the matter, appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or reengage the FAA in discussions about safety improvements.
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