SMX taxiway redesignation sparks controversy

Pilots at Santa Maria Airport (SMX) on California’s central coast are learning their way around new taxiway designations — but they aren’t happy about it.

Neither are the controllers who man the tower at the airport, who claim they were not consulted on the changes.

According to Airport Manager Chris Hastert, a runway extension project completed in 2012 necessitated a taxiway extension, which led the FAA to take a new look at the way the taxiways were named at the World War II-era airport.

Airport officials hired a consultant to come up with a way to make the taxiways less confusing. The consultant, referencing FAA Advisory Circular AC 150-5340-18F, concluded the most logical course of action was to give the taxiways alpha-numeric designations such as A1, A2, and so forth.

“Taxiway Echo spanned the entire airport,” Hastert explained. “If there is something wrong on Taxiway Echo, it’s going to be a challenge to find the problem. Saying there’s something wrong at Alpha 1 is much more precise.”

SMX 1 002(1)Earlier this year, the California Pilots Association and staff at the SMX control tower raised a loud chorus of opposition to the redesignation project, alleging it could lead to potentially deadly situations as pilots and controllers familiar with the old taxiway layout could get confused.

SMX Tower Manager Jim Jones claimed the controllers were not consulted before airport officials began the project.

“If you are going to do a runway extension project, you need to consult with the tower,” he said. “The tower had no input in it whatsoever and the way it was done.”

Jones contends the tower staff were not made aware of the project until May 2011, well after a plan had been created and was slated for implementation.

“They spent $225,000 for the creation of a plan that doesn’t make any sense and is unnecessary,” he said. “Having one strip of pavement and giving it four taxiway names doesn’t make any sense. We told them that the Advisory Circular is advisory, not mandatory.”

Hastert counters that first draft of the plan was made available to the public well before the work began.

“We had the draft plan available to our local tenants and it had been on the front counter of the airport office for public review for a year,” Hastert said, adding that suggestions from the tower controllers did result in some modifications to the plan.

The controllers are not the only ones upset. Mitch Latting of the California Pilots Association, noted that the association packed public meetings to show opposition to the redesignation.

“Myself, the SMX Tower manager Jim Jones, along with controller Curtis Fleming, were able to provide information that the proposed taxiway plan was both incorrect and not a ‘simple and logical’ layout as depicted in the FAA document,” Latting said. “After the meeting, board members said they would like to take a look at the plan Jones had created, which is a simple plan that merely added a couple of new taxiway signs to the existing taxiway system — certainly not redesignating the entire airport.”

Latting added that Jones has called the original taxiway layout at SMX “one of the simplest and effective taxiway plans he has ever run across. He also enlightened us that there have been no runway incursions at SMX for at least five years.”

Despite the opposition to the redesignation, the work began this spring.

“There will be a learning curve,” Hastert confirmed, adding that airport officials, tower personnel, pilots, and the FAA are working to educate airport users.

As this issue was going to press, the SMX ASOS carried a NOTAM advising pilots that the taxiway renaming project is complete and new airport diagrams are being created.

“Everybody likes familiarity,” noted FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. “SMX pilots and air traffic controllers will have to get used to the new airfield taxiway designations.”

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  1. says

    As you can imagine there are many factors that went into this project which extended our main runway from 6,300′ to 8,000′. The taxiway designation change is one component that did generate some attention, however I am happy to report I have received more compliments than complaints. Once implemented and updated on the FAA airport diagram the controllers and pilots (myself included) adapted very quickly. Thank you Meg for sharing this story with a fair representation of both sides of the issue. Our Santa Maria Airport Board of Directors and Staff operate very transparently, and I am available if anybody has questions regarding this project. One quick note, the amount quoted for the “plan” was actually for the plan and all construction which included the replacement of many signs that were very old and in need of replacement whether or not the designations changed.

  2. says

    Another example of how governments love to codify (write) procedures and advisories. Then when there’s opposition to its goal, it points to the “Code,” hires an expensive study that–no surprise–advises following the Code. The Code is implemented over rational arguements. The government leverages this process–I refer to it as The Code Made Me Do It–by constantly re-writing the Code.

    • says

      Thank you Meg for this excellent article. Your journalism is highly professional. My comments here should be titled “One Size Does Not Fit All”, and here’s why.

      First of all, in my opinion, spending of over one quarter of million, of both local and federal hard earned taxpayer dollars for this taxiway re-designation at SMX, was absolutely unnecessary. There were two taxiway issues at Santa Maria that did require attention. One was due to the runway 30/12 extension and it’s new taxiway exit. The other was an actual FAA requested change at the run up area of runway 30. Both these situations could have easily, and inexpensively been addressed by simply creating/adding one new taxiway name/sign at each location. There was no need to re-designate the entire airport!

      Second, the latest version of FAA Advisory Circular AC 150-5340-18F does indeed advise using the Alpha-Numeric designation when re-designating an entire system. However, the key word here is ADVISE, as in Advisory Circular. In fact, the Circular recognizes that the “functional layout of each airport is different.” In other words, one size does indeed not fit all. It is NOT mandatory to follow the Circular verbatim, and that’s exactly what happened here. The only mandatory requirement from the FAA is that if Federal money is used in an airport project, such as is the case of the SMX runway extension, is it must use AC150-5340-18F.

      In addition, the Circular states “the airport operator should consult with the airport users during the development of the sign system”, and that did not happen at SMX. The new new taxiway re-designation layout was shown to the users after the fact.

      AC150-5340-18F states to keep the taxiway system “simple and logical”. The former taxiway designation system was both simple and quite logical, which resulted in a long history of having no runway incursions.

      Santa Maria airport is relatively small, and the former taxiway system was anything but confusing. Now, in many cases, it’s necessary for the tower controllers to issue twice as much verbiage as previously needed. There in lies the confusion factor, and all this is contradictory to keeping it “simple and logical” and not confusing.

      Humans are quite adaptable to change, and our adaptability is certainly not the issue here. The issue is this new system, in many cases, is overly complicated and anything but “simple and logical”. Mr. Hastert has agreed that there are indeed a couple of locations/taxiway situations now that should be revisited in order to help with the simple and logical and less confusing factor, but that action remains to be seen.

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