The deal resolves “longstanding litigation” over the future of the Southern California airport, according to FAA officials.
Announced by the city during a press conference on a Saturday afternoon, the deal also gives the city the right to immediately shorten the airport’s single runway from 4,973 feet to 3,500 feet “in recognition of the city’s authority to make decisions about land use,” according to FAA officials.
The deal also requires the city to enter into leases with the FBOs on the field “to ensure continuity of those services until the runway is shortened and it decides to provide such services on its own,” FAA officials said.
As part of the deal, the FAA acknowledged that the city has the right to establish its own FBO.
“Mutual cooperation between the FAA and the city enabled us to reach this innovative solution, which resolves longstanding legal and regulatory disputes,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “This is a fair resolution for all concerned because it strikes an appropriate balance between the public’s interest in making local decisions about land use practices and its interests in safe and efficient aviation services.”
While GA advocates — many who spent years fighting for the airport — were taken aback by the news, city officials were jubilant.
“This is a historic day for Santa Monica,” said Mayor Ted Winterer. “After decades of work to secure the health and safety of our neighborhoods, we have regained local control of airport land. We now have certainty that the airport will close forever and future generations of Santa Monicans will have a great park.”
City officials say they plan to shorten the runway “immediately.”
“This will significantly reduce jet traffic flying over our neighborhoods and stops commercial charters until we close operations in 2028,” said City Manager Rick Cole.
In direct contrast, GA’s alphabet groups expressed disappointment and anger at the deal.
“It is certainly a disappointing development, first concerning the immediate ability to shorten the runway, and the ultimate ability to close the airport in 2028,” said Jack Pelton, chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
He said they could only “guess at the inside discussions to reach this settlement, as to our knowledge, the airport’s stakeholders were not a part of it,” adding, “the founding principles of FAA grant assurances are to maintain stability for an airport and its users as part of the national airspace system, above local political maneuvering.”
The fight isn’t over, added Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President Mark Baker.
“The devil is in the details,” he said. “We are working to learn more about the fine points of the settlement, but our main goal — to keep this airport permanently open and available to all general aviation users — remains unchanged. We are not done fighting for Santa Monica.”
Or for the businesses that are currently on the field.
Officials with the National Air Transportation Association, which fought for FBO Atlantic Aviation’s right to continue to operate at SMO, echoed other GA’s groups comments that the implications of this agreement are far-reaching.
“The agreement announced over the weekend is clearly a compromise that will have to be studied closely to fully understand its implications to both SMO and the entire national airport system,” said NATA President Martin H. Hiller. “Certainly, it does not change the necessity of airports like SMO to the LA region. Ultimately, the city of Santa Monica is simply diverting a segment of its traffic to neighboring airports. It is disappointing that businesses both on and off the field that depend on SMO were not part of the negotiations.
“We are pleased the FAA has stated the city is obligated to extend leases to current aeronautical service providers until such time as the city is ready to operate a proper aeronautical service operation with the same commitment to safety and service as demonstrated by NATA members like Atlantic Aviation,” he continued.
NATA officials added they have never disputed the city’s right to operate “a proprietary exclusive business at the field” — its own FBO.
“However, such an operation must be a legitimate one, providing services consistent with industry standards and expectations and selling the kinds of fuel widely used in the industry and support use of the field — a point we note is covered in the weekend agreement,” Hiller said. “The reduction in runway length is a game-changer, the changing mix of traffic in and out of SMO now necessitates a review by the city, other regional communities and private investors as to the appropriate type of aeronautical service businesses to operate at the field.”
Officials with the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) note they will continue to fight for “unfettered access” to Santa Monica Airport.
“We are dismayed that consideration would be given to this kind of arrangement, in the process discriminating against the local entrepreneurs and businesses that rely on the airfield,” said NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen. “We are disappointed that the government decided to settle this case, especially given that NBAA has long been committed to aggressively supporting business aviation access to SMO, through every legislative and legal channel available. If there are further avenues available to us, we intend to explore them.”
Also weighing in is the Citation Jet Pilots Owner Pilot Association (CJP), an organization of more than 800 owners, pilots and enthusiasts of the Cessna Citation line of jets. Members of the organization are especially upset about the immediate shortening of the runway, which restricts SMO’s suitability for turbine-powered aircraft.
“In fact, it severely limits jet operations,” said CJP Executive Director Andrew Broom. “A shorter runway at SMO means that dozens of our members based throughout Southern California will not be able to safely utilize a valued airfield in the Los Angeles basin. I find it somewhat baffling that the FAA would accept, never mind celebrate, such a compromise.”
“We need to fight to keep airports like Santa Monica in our communities, as they are the backbone to our nation’s aviation infrastructure,” Broom continued. “Unfortunately, today’s developments remind us all too well of the sudden closure of Chicago’s Meigs Field in 2003, and this certainly establishes a troubling precedent for other communities that may wish to take similar actions against their hometown airports.”
A little background
Established in 1917, the airport was the home of the Douglas Aircraft factory during World War II.
In 1948, the federal government declared the airport surplus property and gave it to the city of Santa Monica through an Instrument of Transfer. Part of the deal is that the property remain an airport in perpetuity.
The city initially sued over SMO in federal court in October 2013, claiming that it was not fully aware that the federal government had a continuing expectation of the city’s compliance with the conditions of the 1948 transfer agreement concerning the airport.
A U.S. district court judge threw out the city’s initial case as being filed too late to challenge something that they’ve known about for over 65 years, leading the city to appeal to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court.
On appeal, the city again argued that it did not know that the conditions of the 1948 agreement were still in force, and that, in any event, a 1984 settlement with the FAA over aircraft traffic at SMO extinguished any rights the federal government had under the World War II-era statute.
While still tied up in court, the city took measures to strangle the airport, assessing exorbitant landing and rental fees and not renewing leases for businesses on the airport.
Then in November 2014, a city sponsored ballot initiative known as Measure LC passed, giving control of the airport to the City Council.
Since then, city officials have continued the fight in the courts and through its tactics to try to evict airport tenants and restrict use, such as banning jets and limiting touch and goes.