Legal battle widens over the future of Santa Monica Municipal Airport

A small plane from American Flyers, a flight school, comes in for a landing at Santa Monica Municipal Airport.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The legal battle over the future of Santa Monica Municipal Airport widened Tuesday when a major aviation tenant filed a federal complaint challenging the city’s effort to reduce aircraft services and eventually shut down the historic facility.

Atlantic Aviation, which provides fuel, hangars and other services for aircraft, asked the Federal Aviation Administration to determine whether the airport’s leasing policy, a proposal to restrict fuel sales and plans to force Atlantic to leave violate federal agreements with the city.

The complaint alleges that the city is ignoring federal grant requirements that prohibit “unjust discrimination” against aircraft uses as well as unfair and unreasonable dealings with airport tenants.

In Santa Monica’s ongoing effort to close the airport, Atlantic notes that the city has provided airport leases for nonaviation uses but has refused to enter new leases this year with the company as well as other aviation tenants. All are operating month-to-month, and the city has threatened to evict them at any time.


The complaint argues that the city’s policy to limit fuel sales to unleaded aviation gas and bio-fuels for jets would severely curtail aircraft operations and threaten a large number of Atlantic’s customers. The complaint describes those fuels as commercially untenable because many piston-engine aircraft require leaded fuel and biofuels are not widely available yet.

The company also contends that Santa Monica’s new policy to replace it with a city-run operation is designed to minimize air traffic by offering substandard services and inconvenient hours.

“The city’s objectives are now crystal clear: Fight the FAA for ‘local control’ in the courts, and, in the interim, undertake any measure at its disposal to severely curtail or discourage air traffic at Santa Monica Airport,” the complaint states.

Last month, the Santa Monica City Council adopted the policies in question and voted in favor of closing the airport by July 2018 if legally possible. They say federal law allows airport operators to establish city-run aviation businesses, and the ban on leaded gas and standard jet fuel is justified because they are threats to public health.

Officials also say the airport leasing policy will allow uses required by law and tenants that are compatible with surrounding uses.

As the proprietor and operator, the city has the legal right to protect the health, safely and welfare of the environment and Santa Monica residents, Mayor Tony Vazquez said.

He has told the FAA that any contractual agreements that may remain between the city and the federal government do not nullify those rights.

The Atlantic complaint sets in motion an administrative process in which both sides present their positions and evidence to a high-ranking FAA official. The decision can be appealed once within the agency and later in federal court.


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