The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) jointly filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in support of an FAA motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit over the future of Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) in California.
In the brief, AOPA and NBAA point to the protections that the federal government puts in place when it transfers federal airport property to sponsors such as the City of Santa Monica, including the obligation to maintain the property as an airport until the federal government determines that it may no longer serve the purpose for which it was conveyed.
These protections are intended to recognize and preserve the importance of the airport to the national air transportation system so that the public is assured a safe and efficient national transportation infrastructure, AOPA officials note.
The closure of the Santa Monica Airport could create safety and congestion problems for air traffic in its geographic area, with ripple effects nationwide, officials add.
Santa Monica hosts more than 102,000 flight operations each year — an average of 280 per day. Those flights could not readily be absorbed by other area airports, AOPA officials note.
The associations filed the amicus brief after the FAA asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the city over the airport property. While the City of Santa Monica and the FAA have presented technical arguments over the terms of an agreement signed decades ago, AOPA and NBAA intend to present the court with the bigger picture of what is at stake if the city is allowed to breach its agreement and leave the future of the Santa Monica Airport to the city’s whim, according to AOPA officials.
The amicus brief states that allowing the city to close the airport could have unintended consequences for more than 200 other airports that operate under surplus property transfer agreements similar to the one between the federal government and the city of Santa Monica.
Those airports include Van Nuys Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco International Airport, among others. If other cities were to follow Santa Monica’s lead to up-end obligations that it knowingly accepted and attempt to gain unilateral control to restrict or close those airports, simply because it no longer likes having the airport, the national air transportation system could be devastated, the associations argued.
The AOPA-NBAA brief also stressed that the airport is an important asset to Santa Monica’s economy, hosting some 175 businesses that provide 1,500 jobs and generating an estimated $275 million in annual economic output.
“This airport is not only critically important to the regional and national air transportation system, it also creates jobs and economic activity in Santa Monica, and it should not be closed because the city is no longer satisfied with the agreements it made with the federal government,” said Ken Mead, general counsel for AOPA. “We think the FAA has presented a compelling argument for dismissing the lawsuit and we hope the judge in the case will agree.”
AOPA and NBAA have engaged their members and the pilot and aircraft operator community in defense of Santa Monica Airport, which has been in use since 1919 and for many years was the site of Douglas Aircraft Co. Douglas built many of the homes next to the airport for its employees.
The city leased the airport to the federal government during World War II, but regained control after the war through a conveyance that assured the federal government that the city would operate the airport in perpetuity.
More than 65 years have passed since the city reached its agreement with the federal government, and the city has repeatedly acknowledged the government’s interest in maintaining the land as an airport over the intervening years.
In the lawsuit, filed Oct. 31, 2013, the Santa Monica City Council asked the court to give the city clear title to airport property and challenged the current effectiveness and constitutionality of agreements that require the city to continue to operate the airport.
But in the motion to dismiss, filed Jan. 10, the federal government argued that the city is disputing the terms of the land agreement decades too late. According to the court filing, the city had 12 years under the Quiet Title Act to bring suit against the federal government once the city learned of the government’s interest in the property.
The motion also called the city’s constitutional claims “unripe” because they can only be triggered by the government’s action to take control of the airport — an event that has not taken place.
In recent years residents living next to the airport have rallied to close it, complaining of noise and pollution. However, a 2011 poll of Santa Monica residents commissioned by AOPA found that two-thirds of voters would like the airport to remain open and that the airport was not considered a key issue facing the city.
The city has repeatedly attempted to close the airport, which serves as a reliever for nearby LAX. AOPA has spent hundreds of hours engaging the pilot community, talking to community leaders, working with the FAA and participating in legal actions in support of the field, officials noted.
“We believe it is critical that the judge in this case understand that there is more at stake than whether this piece of property stays an airport or not,” says Mead. “The federal government is charged with maintaining and improving airports to meet the transportation needs of our nation, and the reason for certain terms in the agreements that it makes with airport sponsors is so that the government is able to meet those needs.”
AOPA maintains that the city is undermining the public’s interest, locally and nationally, in favor of the interests of a vocal few.