Santa Monica stumbles…again

Earlier this month the city council of Santa Monica, California, decided to strike a blow for economic parity by instituting landing fees at the airport. As a former city commissioner of a small city that owns an airport, I can say this about their decision: It’s short-sighted.

As an individual involved in economic development of a region, I can say this: It’s based on ignorance with a hint of malice.

And as an aviation enthusiast who has spent untold thousands of dollars in conjunction with my affection for aviation: It’s idiotic on an industrial scale.

Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) has a single runway that’s just shy of 5,000 feet. Fair enough. I’ve flown out of smaller airports both recreationally and professionally and had a darned good time doing it. Size isn’t the issue in Santa Monica. The problem is a city staff that has a severe deficiency in their understanding of what the airport brings to their community. Worse, their city council has not done the homework necessary to recognize the benefits this field brings into their midst.

I have no doubt the staffers and elected officials are decent people who have the best interest of the city at heart. But their inability to recognize opportunity when it stares them in the face is troubling. Their unwillingness to be honest about the costs of running a municipality are a little worrisome too.

Consider this: Of Santa Monica’s 450 or so operations a day, 60% are transient aircraft operations. Those are flights coming in from elsewhere. Flights that bring in passengers and aircraft.

How do passengers and aircraft affect the economy of a community like Santa Monica? There are two restaurants on the field. Perhaps those passengers eat there. It’s certainly likely. They might stay in one of the many nearby hotels or motels as well. In fact, they do. That’s an established fact. They might also travel to Santa Monica specifically to have work done on their aircraft at the avionics shop, or to do business with clients there. They might even be coming in to spend their vacation in this ocean front community.

As shocking as it might seem to some, pilots are regular people, and so they do pretty much what any other visitor to Santa Monica might do. They shop, they eat, they play golf and tennis, and go for bike rides. In short, they support businesses that support the economic base of the community.

So what harm could come from raising a few dollars by imposing landing fees on the aircraft coming into Santa Monica? Well, a lot frankly. And while the city council members seem to be united in suggesting this step is not intended as an opening volley aimed at shutting down the airport, it would be better if it was. At least then the residents of Santa Monica would know their elected officials understood the impact of their actions. Adding landing fees will absolutely, without a doubt, begin a domino effect of decline that will be difficult to arrest — and once the airport is gone the situation will not improve for many years to come.

Like most businesses in the United States, airports operate in a free market. Whether they’re government owned or privately owned, the customer decides where to spend their money based on a balance of cost vs service. If the cost is reasonable and the service is good, the business tends to thrive. If the cost is high and the service is poor, the business tends to fail. If the cost is low and the service is poor — that’s not good, either. You can raise your rates and still keep your customers, provided your service or the quality of your product improves. If you raise your rates while maintaining the same level of quality, business will stagnate and then begin to drop off. That situation will lead to fewer customers, larger losses, and ultimately — failure.

Welcome to Santa Monica Municipal, where the businesses are trying hard but the management is dedicated to failure. Why? Who knows? But neither the facts nor the management of the airport is encouraging to the long term success of the field.

Of course a good case can be made that California is densely populated by general aviation airports. With Hawthorne Municipal, Van Nuys, Bob Hope, Zamperini, and Whiteman all nearby, it is absolutely reasonable to assume that most, if not all, the traffic driven out of Santa Monica will find a place to go. They certainly will, too. But the question the city council members should be asking themselves is this: What are the odds those transients will hang on to their wallets while in the surrounding towns and travel by surface roads to Santa Monica before they let loose with their dollars?

You know the answer to that question. They won’t. Santa Monica’s city council has made the wrong decision about one of the great arteries into their city. In deciding to hang out a big neon sign that reads “Pay Up or Go Away!” they’re giving their neighbors a competitive edge, while securing a losing hand for themselves in the process.

The situation may not be salvageable, but the outcome is not difficult to predict. This will not be the first time bad government has led to losses on the private side. It will not be the last, either. Not unless those of us who care get up out of our seats and do something about it.

Personally, I hope you do.


  1. Ilya Haykinson says

    As a student pilot at KSMO, and a homeowner in its vicinity, I understand the pain that both communities feel. Ultimately, I think the main issue is the noise brought along by jets — which represent a small percentage of operations, but are many, many times noisier.

    At the end of the day, the neighborhoods around the airport want the noise reduced, but they’re grasping at every straw to influence this reduction. This landing fee is just the latest in a variety of approaches that have been proposed — others included mandating mufflers, for example — but as it happens, it’s the only one that passed a vote so far.

    I think a more reasonable solution is to shorten the runway. About 2000 feet of the runway are part of a separate operational agreement that comes up for renewal in 2015. If the runway is shortened, operations will effectively be limited to piston aircraft willing to land and take off from a ~3,000 ft runway. This would reduce business jet operations, much to the chagrin of some travelers, but would keep aviation alive in Santa Monica and hopefully reduce most neighborhood complaints for another decade or two.

    • says

      Ilya, This a is really a “catch 22” – shorten the runway, and as you mentioned, will regulate the airport to smaller piston aircraft EXCEPT it would take about 25 Cessna 172’s to equal the annual income (fuel, etc) that ONE King Air 200 could produce. Simply, less QUALITY = more QUANITY. Solves one problem (noise?) – but creates another (budget $hortfall) – a NO win situation!

      • says

        Not sure how others see it, but I sure have no confidence in those economic studies that FAA and others like to push. Aviation certainly requires money, and so there is undeniably some positive impact from a well-used airport, but too many of those studies are absolutely absurd in the inflated figures they cite. My closest airport, 4S9 or Mulino, supposedly stirs $4.5M into the local economy each year, while it sits there, lifeless, 90% of the time and has not even a limited FBO. At a place like SMO, for fuel sales, yeah, a jet can suck up a lot more than a bunch of C172’s, but then again, most pilots shop around, and a quick look at jet-A prices online indicates SMO is not even close to the best price. Realistically, has anyone actually studied what the jets do at SMO? Could it be just a $400 hamburger stop? Or does it offer relief from excessive landing fees at nearby airports?

        SMO is 5+ miles from LAX, and roughly 11 miles from both VNY and BUR. In the big picture, a little airport with lots of neighborhood impact in this location is just not needed for jets and higher performance aircraft. If it reverts to 3,000-ft, so be it. Ideally, given the substantial decline in commercial flights, including at LAX, FAA will reverse the ‘reliever airport’ trend of the last twenty years where they drove all the GA – including lots of performance – away from the commercial airports; maybe FAA will start inviting higher performance GA (jets, kingairs, etc.) back into the flow, even at LAX. It is absurdly wasteful to kick these guys out of LAX, if they can be fit in and that is where they need to go; it also greatly increases collision risk (and noise impacts) to have them mixing with the flow of trainers at places like SMO.

        • says

          Reformfaanow; Yes, SMO is “tight/short” for many jet/turbine birds to safely operate from at “gross” on near gross. That said, it’s often the “ammenities” of the FBO (Hooters line crew, close to destinantion, etc) that draws the “up-scale” user. And I’m sure, if one were to do a study, (public information at government funded airports) that the airport authority has LESS of a deficent, if any, when patroned by the “volume” fuel purchaser and you can rest assured it’s not a fleet of Ultralights. I beleive too that the “local economy” bull does not include the direct revenus from the airport FBO’s and other airside income, and yes, it’s GROSSLY overstated.
          As far as pilots shopping around; that applys primarily to your typical C-172 owner/operator who will fly “1000 miles” away to say .05/gallon – NOT your G-III or Falcon 900; “Say Capt, Jet-A is .18/less at ____!, Yeah, but Megan is only 24 (CSR) and really “hot” over at SMO”!

      • Ilya Haykinson says

        I think this talk of “revenues” from airports is really not the point. Nobody really believes that small airports make the city lots of money. They contribute, but perhaps not as much as pretty much any use of the same real estate might — other than perhaps park space. I think airport proponents who try to use revenue figures or “attracting business to the city” as a way to justify the airport are digging themselves a deep, deep hole: after all, for a beach city, building just one real hotel on the land could drum up nearly as many visitors and as much revenue.

        I think airports fulfill a very different need: they are an investment in transportation infrastructure. Small ones are used for training new pilots and providing hobbyists and light commercial operators with a base or a destination. Medium ones serve the business travel crowd. Large ones obviously serve passengers. A city that keeps some part of this going will benefit from the larger system’s health more than from that one airport’s specific operations.

        Unfortunately, this is a hard argument to make. The positive externality of the airport (strong aviation) are harder to see and to make local than the negative externalities (noise, pollution, space usage). But while hard, it still needs to be argued since at the end of the day I think this is the main benefit of a local airport. It also means that it should be fine to accept a change in runway configuration (and thus a change in status to a smaller airport) if that is what the community wants these days — and especially if this keeps up the long term health of the overall system high.

  2. says

    “I’ll repeat it again -I said small unmarked bills – and next time, please have the good cent$ to meet me somewhere other than Dunkin Donuts”!

  3. Ray Ebner says

    Instead of taking a Mayor Daley approach to closing Santa Monica, it appears that the city leaders are quite content in taking a slow methodical approach towards its closure. I hope that the pilots based there can see what is happening.

  4. says

    While we talk of the economic benefits the airport brings to the community, unfortunately there is larger money waiting to be had from the property in the form of big real estate development coupled new higher tax revenues. Yes, there is a handful of locals screaming about the over emphasized physical and environmental dangers of the airport, but they are simply welcomed puppets for the politicians looking for easy votes, and for the hidden money hungry greedy people looking for the quick short term dollar gain.

    The citizens of Santa Monica are victims of this greed. Yes, there will be new residential and commercial development, bringing new jobs and tax revenues. Probably much more than currently produced by the airport, but along with that comes more pollution in more forms than currently exist from airport activity.

    One huge positive airport aspect overlooked and/or purposely ignored by the greedy selfish individuals, politicians, and developers is the true value the airport brings to that community in the event of a natural disaster. The airport becomes the life line to humanity when roads are closed, overpasses have fallen, people are injured, etc., and ground transportation in all forms, is stopped. I reference Watsonville, CA when the 1989 earthquake shut down all roads and the citizens looked to the airport for all forms of relief and rescue. Also South Lake Tahoe fires several years ago, when the locals that screamed for years about the uselessness and obnoxious aspects of the airport, suddenly overnight, became huge fans of South Lake Tahoe airport, as it saved their butts due to the massive fire fighting efforts staged out of the airport.

    I certainly do not wish any disaster to fall on anyone or to any community, but this type of situation has to be strongly considered and openly discussed. If all these groups that continue to tell us the airport is bad for Santa Monica, they do that with their selfish interests at heart. These people are certainly not interested in the welfare of Santa Monica citizens at all.

    Until there is a true united effort, the loud puppet screamers, vote seeking [and possibly money hungry] politicians and developers will prevail.

    It is an obvious case of follow the money!

    Mitch Latting
    Vice President, Region 3
    California Pilots Association

  5. says

    Hey Jamie,
    You are exactly right. Ed Rosiak is spot-on, too.
    I think if Santa Monica politics finds landing fees appropriate for a federally subsidized airport, then why aren’t tolls being charged for cars arriving by IH-10 or the Pacific Coast Highway? Those are federally subsidized, too.
    Cheers from The Alamo,

  6. says

    Anti-airport mentality from airport sponsors is nothing new, especially in California. What troubles me is that local pilots, and SMO users, have yet to stand up to the city and it’s hostile actions toward the airport, which by the way, has been going on for years. It’s not as though this is new.

    After our offer of assistance was refused by the local airport organization a few years ago, the California Pilots Association has repeatedly advised SMO users to respond legally to the various anti-airport actions the city has taken. It hasn’t happened. We believe that there is still a majority of SMO users who are in disbelief that airport closure will ever happen. They are wrong.

    I invite you to visit and do a search on “Santa Monica” to read the litany of anti-airport actions that the Santa Monica City council has taken, including adding a “Real Estate” professional to the airport advisory board. I wonder why that was done?

    After you read all of the articles you will understand how clear the city’s actions have been.

    SMO users still have a chance, but the urgency doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. We wonder when someone will stand up and lead the charge? One person can make a difference.

    Ed Rosiak – President
    California Pilots Association

  7. PB says

    You miss the point – the people in Santa Monica somehow think this will be a park – they dream of the runway having weeds growing through it. They post articles in the local newspaper about how flight school aircraft belch lead over the community, poisoning them daily, yet they ignore the emissions from LAX, just ten miles down the road.
    The naysayers are idiots, yet the city council listens to them.
    You speak of the economic benefits – they don’t care. Its NIMBY – and they want pilots to go elsewhere.
    Schwarzenegger didn’t help – he had his crew fly him daily to Sacramento for his last four years in office. The locals complain about everything – flight school activity, jet blasts and noise, leaded fuel. They say that while the airport is claimed by the FAA to have to operate in perpetuity that, in fact, there is a lease over 1/3rd of the runway that expires in a few years, so they hope to close 1/3rd of the runway, making it impossible to operate there.
    You wrote a food article, but you miss the point. They don’t care. They want the planes to away.

  8. says

    Hey Jamie,

    I enjoy much of what you have written, but I think there may be a bit more to the story at SMO. To my knowledge, this is one of the most hotly challenged (and studied) airports in the country, with a substantial amount of documentation related to environmental impacts. Not just lead from AvGas, but also soot from Jet-A. What makes it even more delicate is the airport is packed tightly next to dense residential neighborhoods.

    Not sure if allows us to share file addresses, so hope these next three come through. Anyway, there is a study (~2Mb PDF) viewable online at this link:

    Or, if you want to look at smaller files, with two of the key images, try these PDF’s;
    1) an aerial photo of the airport with lead air sampling values (study pg.9):

    2) a map/computer model showing estimated air lead levels during summer 2008 (study pg.15):

    It seems to me that the balance between an airport and a community needs to be struck. The LA Basin has lots of excess capacity (ONT is crying for airplanes), and nearly all other airports have a lot less close-in impact than SMO. As we all know, the AIP-funds have fangs called ‘grant assurances’ that strip management tools needed by the actual airport authority; the powers all shift to FAA, an absentee-landlord at best. If we wanted to start from scratch and design a system that would GUARANTEE maximum conflict at the airport, well, we’d be hard-pressed to find a more efficient design.

    In an ideal world, we might find FAA actually trying to help, and working with local government officials to develop a plan that minimizes SMO usage. With the right balance, SMO likely could peacably coexist with all the neighbors, at say 200-300 ops per day. But, lacking this ideal situation, my guess is the SMO city officials feel the best they can do for the families living there is try to scare pilots away with landing fees.

  9. Linda S. Berl says

    Do they really need another mall?! The unfortunate reality is there is probably someone “jones-ing” after the land that the airport sits on…remember what happened in Chicago?
    I am honestly tired of being polite to these greedy people who continue to take huge chunks out of our diminishing supply of good GA airports. 450 operations a day is a lot of people and a lot of revenue for the city. Maybe it’s time for us to start getting angry back. We are just too darn polite and nice for our own good!
    I think I am feeling a little “malice” myself…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *