The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday ordered Santa Monica to halt the evictions of two aviation companies at its municipal airport until the agency can finish an investigation into the city's effort to shut down the facility.
FAA officials issued an interim cease-and-desist order to stop the ouster of Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers, two major providers of aircraft services, including fuel, flight instruction, hangars and amenities for charter operators.
The move to evict the companies is part of the city's strategy to force out aviation tenants, reduce aircraft flights and shut down the oldest operating airport in Los Angeles County by July 2018.
If the evictions go forward, the city plans to replace Atlantic and American Flyers with its own municipal aviation company and sell bio-fuel for jets and unleaded gas for propeller planes to reduce aircraft emissions. Federal law allows governments that operate airports to provide services themselves instead of relying on private companies.
The city sent the first notices to evict in mid-September and filed lawsuits against both tenants in November to regain possession of the property.
"While we are disappointed but not surprised that the FAA has decided to issue this interim order on the pending evictions of Atlantic and American Flyer, we remain committed to replacing private fixed-based operations with public services," Mayor Tony Vasquez said.
The cease-and-desist order states that Santa Monica's "unremitting effort" to remove critical aeronautical services and its "hostility" to the sale of leaded fuel still needed by many aircraft is "a clear contravention of law."
The order notes that general aviation aircraft, business jets and turboprop aircraft cannot operate using the fuels approved by the City Council. It further states that the city has no desire to provide all the services offered by the companies, such as flight training.
Under agreements with the federal government, the city must make the airport available for public use and benefit. It cannot discriminate against aircraft types or uses and must make space available for aviation tenants on reasonable terms based on good faith negotiations.
"The city has failed to grant any aeronautical leases since 2015 and is alleged to have negotiated in bad faith while seeking onerous and unreasonable terms," according to the cease-and-desist order, which later states that the leasing policy for the airport fails to include aviation.
"We are pleased that the FAA has recognized our client's federally protected right to be at the airport," said R. Christopher Harshman, an attorney for American Flyers.
In a separate action, Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers have asked a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to halt the evictions. A hearing is set for Jan. 3.
Santa Monica officials say they are working in "good faith" to provide the services and fuel required by federal regulations. They have 30 days to respond to the FAA's cease-and-desist order.
In late September, the FAA opened a wide-ranging investigation to determine whether the city's so-called starvation strategy for the airport violates its federal obligations that date back to the late 1940s.
The 227-acre airport has about 270 aircraft and averages 452 takeoffs and landings per day. Supporters say it is an economic benefit for the region, provides a base of operations for major emergencies and helps relieve crowded airspace at Los Angeles International Airport.
Opponents contend the airport should be closed because of noise pollution, potentially harmful emissions from aircraft engines and the risk of a serious crash in surrounding neighborhoods.