The city of Santa Monica loaned its general aviation airport to the federal government during World War II for less than a decade. Yet city leaders have spent the five decades since then, on and off, at war with Washington over who controls the storied 100-year-old Santa Monica Airport — and the right to close it down. The 227-acre single runway airfield, which doesn't handle commercial airline traffic, serves recreational and professional pilots, tiny propeller planes and sleek corporate and chartered jets.
Pressured by residents concerned about noise, plane crashes and emissions, the city has sought to bar jets and roll back the use of the airport, only to be stymied by the Federal Aviation Administration. Undeterred, the city council voted unanimously late last month to close the airport no later than July 1, 2018. In the meantime, it plans to phase out the sale of leaded fuel (which many propeller planes still use) and file paperwork with the FAA to shorten the runway (which would automatically make it unusable by larger private jets.) The council's actions prompted a stern letter from the FAA warning the city that it was legally obligated to run the airport on "reasonable terms."
According to the aviation and pilot organizations, aircraft owners and airport-based service providers that have filed complaints with the FAA, the city is not operating the airport reasonably. They say that the availability of only short-term leases, the more than doubling of landing fees and the eviction of various tenants are all part of the city's plan to make the airport so inhospitable and difficult to use — essentially "starving" the airport of services — that tenants leave and planes stop flying in and out.
The final answer on whether the city can close the airport will probably come from the courts. In separate federal court cases, the city is challenging two positions taken by the FAA: that the government's transfer of the airport back to the city after World War II was done on the condition that the field stay open in perpetuity, and that a federal airport improvement grant to Santa Monica that was increased in 2003 obligates the airport to stay in operation at least until 2023.
Residents' complaints notwithstanding, there are plenty of compelling reasons to keep the airport running.
Last year, according to the FAA, there were about 90,000 take-offs and landings at Santa Monica — less than the 210,000 operations at Van Nuys Airport and 104,000 at Hawthorne, but still enough to make it a crucial air-transportation artery in the region, particularly for the Westside and beach communities. If Santa Monica closes, some jets will go to nearby Los Angeles International, burdening an already busy airport with extra traffic competing with commercial jets for take-off and landing time.
And the airport is not just home to recreational fliers. Other users include business travelers, flights transporting organs for transplant and volunteers carrying rescued animals to adoption centers. Angel Flight West, a nonprofit organization founded and based at the airport, logged 529 flights by volunteer pilots into and out of Santa Monica last year to ferry people with non-emergency but serious medical conditions to treatment centers, fly children to summer camps, and occasionally help relocate victims of domestic violence. And in the event of a natural disaster, the airport could be an important port for rescue and supply operations.
This isn't a frivolous playground for the "1 percenters," as some of its opponents like to cast it. It's a vital hub in an already crowded air transportation system. And as for safety concerns, there have been a handful of planes heading into or out of the airport that have crashed into nearby properties over the past three decades (including, famously, one piloted by actor Harrison Ford). But the percentage is infinitesimal. And in the 43 crashes during that period on or around the airport, no one on the ground has been killed or seriously injured. (All told, 25 pilots and passengers were killed in 13 fatal crashes within five miles of the field.) In addition, though most piston-engine propeller planes still must use high-octane leaded gas, that is changing. Working with government, the industry expects to identify an unleaded fuel option by the end of 2018 and start transitioning planes on to it.
While Santa Monica's claims to control of the airport are in court, the city should honor what the FAA says is its legal obligation to run it well — not into the ground in an obvious ploy to discourage people from using it.