The Santa Monica Airport has long been embattled. City officials and nearby residents have made no secret of the fact that they are weary of it, especially as larger and larger private jets take off from and land on its single runway. Neighbors, some living no more than 300 feet from the runway, worry over safety, noise, and air pollution. The city has been in and out of court for decades, dueling with the Federal Aviation Administration — which oversees the city's compliance with federal rules on aircraft and airport operations — for the right to close the airport or curtail its activities.
Now, the City Council has bypassed the courts and gone to its voters. Measure LC, which asserts that it is up to the City Council to decide how to manage the airport and whether to close all or part of it, passed decisively on Tuesday.
However, it's unlikely that the measure can be implemented any time soon without another court battle. There's no question that the city owns the airport, the oldest in Los Angeles County. But it has also had a long relationship with the federal government, which leased the airport for defense purposes during World War II. The U.S. returned the airport — extensively refurbished — in 1948 under an official transfer agreement that allowed the city to run it as long as it operated as an airport. A settlement between the city and the FAA in 1984 laid out strict noise abatement rules and obligated the city to maintain the airport until July 2015. The city has received about $10 million in improvement grants from the FAA since 1985 — also on the condition that the airport function until 2015. An additional $240,000 received in 2003 pushed that deadline to 2023, according to the FAA. The city disagrees.
Regardless of when that deadline comes, the FAA's broader position is that Santa Monica agreed in 1948 to maintain an airport in perpetuity. City officials find that ridiculous. "We cannot be required to operate an airport indefinitely if that is not the will of the people," says City Manager Rod Gould.
But shutting down an airport is not like closing a landfill. The Santa Monica Airport, though not the busiest general aviation facility in the state (that distinction goes to Van Nuys Airport), plays a vital role in the region's transportation system, as the base of operation for over 400 aircraft. Open to private business and recreational aircraft, it relieves Los Angeles International Airport of some smaller plane traffic. Flight schools, airplane maintenance, charter jet businesses, and emergency and medical flight services all use it as a base.
As for safety issues, between 1982 and 2013 there were 13 fatal crashes within five miles of the airport resulting in the deaths of 25 people. No one on the ground has been killed or seriously injured. That's significant given the concerns of residents living close to the runway. None of the accidents investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board has been attributed to the layout of the airport or the dimensions of the runway, which have been concerns of the community.
City governments do close down small airports — but those airports don't get federal funding or operate under transfer agreements with the federal government. That's why Santa Monica officials and airport critics are desperate to free themselves from the yoke of federal support for the airport. But they need to realize that as long as this airport remains crucial to transportation in the region, it makes sense for the FAA to have a significant say in whether it remains open.