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.