August 1, 2012
By Julie Summers Walker
It’s 10:30 p.m. on a clear Southern California evening, and Bill Dunn has finally deflated. AOPA’s vice president of airport advocacy has been running full tilt since 8 a.m., when he met with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. Since then, Dunn has been bobbing and weaving through a series of interviews, meetings, confrontations, and conferences like a man half his age. Now, standing by his rental car in the parking lot of a Courtyard Marriott hotel, the stress of the day is showing. He’s been questioned, he’s counseled, he’s advised, and he’s been attacked—it’s all in a day’s work. He’s also traveled to four different airports along the coast, visited the FAA regional headquarters, and sat through a three-hour city council meeting during which he was heckled and jeered.
Remarkably, even though his face is lined with fatigue, he says, “My days are always successful; I get to do what I love to do.”
Dunn, a 21-year AOPA employee, private pilot, and former state trooper, exemplifies the passion and dogged determination of the association’s Government Affairs Division. This advocacy team of the world’s largest general aviation organization does the heavy lifting for pilots. Can we stop user fees from destroying GA? Can we identify a workable alternative to leaded avgas? Can we save owners from excessive taxation?
And the question on Dunn’s mind: Can we preserve local airports?
On this trip—Dunn travels some 80 days per year—it’s the never-ending fight to save Santa Monica Airport, which has been under attack since the mid-1970s. Dunn has been carrying this banner since 1991 and has employed every tactic in his book. From bulldog stances to cajoling conversations, Dunn has met with the organizations such as Friends of Santa Monica Airport (FOSMO), city officials, the FAA, and airport management in his efforts to explain and validate the airport’s importance (see “Why We Need to Save SMO,” page 61). Recently, with assistance from AOPA Vice President of Airports and State Advocacy Greg Pecoraro, Dunn crafted a letter to the members of the Santa Monica city council advocating for a “we’re on your side” conciliatory relationship. Working with, working against, being nice, being tough—they’re all approaches used to lobby for the ultimate goal—saving an airport.
“I am the advocate,” Dunn pronounces in describing his role.
With his first cup of coffee of the day, Dunn meets with Los Angeles Times staff writer Dan Weikel. Weikel covers transportation for the newspaper and has talked with Dunn often in the four years since they first met. The two discuss the current situation at Santa Monica, and Weikel seems impressed that Dunn will be attending that evening’s council meeting. Weikel is pragmatic about the situation at Santa Monica, sees the many sides of the story, and has learned much from his association with Dunn.
Sitting together in the hotel lobby, the two look more like old friends than men who see each other once or twice a year on business. In fact, the conversation is like one between friends, or counselor to colleague. Weikel says later that Dunn is well versed in the issues involving GA airports. “He is professional and a strong advocate for AOPA,” he says. “I’ve found him to be very helpful providing me information and background for local aviation stories.”
Weikel gets a call that there’s been an accident at California’s high-speed rail project, prompting him to realize he’s spent nearly two hours talking with Dunn. As he leaves, Dunn is on his phone checking messages. Several meetings have been rescheduled, and so Dunn places a call to one of the organizers and gets his assistant. Several back-and-forth calls ensue while she changes the meeting time. Dunn is then up like a shot and hustling to his rental car (the upgraded car is a source of embarrassment to him—he rarely has such a new model, he says, and that’s evident by his struggles to start it and get it into gear).
Dunn once lived in Torrance, California, and knows the roads well. But there’s no escaping the L.A. traffic. He guns the Chrysler 300 and makes the next meeting at the FAA’s regional headquarters with enough time to go through the screening and badging required at the facility. In a colorless room in a lifeless federal office, the Los Angeles airport district office manager comments that it’s a good assignment to be in Los Angeles—but it’s hard to realize that in this office or sitting in traffic or in the hotel room.
After an affable meeting with the FAA, during which Dunn explains his recent letter to the Santa Monica city council, it’s back on the freeway to Van Nuys. VNY is another case Dunn has been working on for several years, and he’s stopping here today to check in with local airport supporters who are concerned with an airport move to shove piston aircraft off the airport. He offers some advice, provides some cheerleading, and listens to their concerns. Sandwiches from Costco are served in a basement office.
At Santa Monica, a meeting with Bob Trimborn, the airport manager, is cut short because he’s been summoned to the city council for a “rehearsal” for the night’s meeting. Dunn takes advantage of the opportunity to visit one of the FBOs on the airport, owned by a member of the airport’s advocacy group.
After trading friendly barbs and more serious talk about the airport, the two head to a dinner Dunn has planned with other members of FOSMO at the Spitfire Grill near the airport. There, between bites of fish and chips, Dunn outlines the work he and AOPA have been doing on behalf of the airport, fields questions about what to expect at the council meeting, and expresses his disappointment to the dozen men at the table because not all plan to attend. Dunn picks up the tab.
Santa Monica’s attractive city hall offers a slice of California style. Inside, the cast of characters is pure Hollywood. There’s a city attorney with bright blond hair who likes to wink and smile at her audience. There’s Councilman Bobby Shriver (yep, Arnold’s brother-in-law) who apparently can’t sit still and often leaves the dais (at one point the mayor pro tem asks—once again—“Has anyone seen Mr. Shriver?”). And from central casting: a roomful of disgruntled, angry citizens.
By 10 p.m., 43 people have taken their allotted two minutes each to denigrate the airport. They’ve told horror stories of chemicals, fuel emissions, possible airplanes falling from the sky, noise, and the difficulties of living next to an airport. When it’s Dunn’s turn to speak, they collectively groan, although the mayor—he arrived halfway through the meeting—admonishes them not to.
For his two minutes, Dunn thanks the city council for the opportunity to speak, acknowledges that all things in life can present dangers (louder groans on that one), and offers that AOPA wants to help in any way it can. No one else speaks in support of the airport.
Outside Dunn answers questions on camera for a local reporter. And one of the airport supporters receives a call: Someone has thrown nails on the drive in front of the airport.
At each stop, the indefatigable Dunn pronounces “One down, five more to go!” enthusiastically. He fields calls from other airport supporters in other areas in the country: “Is there anything we can do as an association to help?” he asks.
“My low points are Blue Ash [in Cincinnati, Ohio] and [Chicago’s] Meigs. But I’m in it for the long run. We will save what we can.”
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Santa Monica Airport represents all of America’s airports
In 1981, longtime aviation columnist Barry Schiff wrote a story for AOPA Pilot that he titled, “Death of An Airport.” Santa Monica Airport was under siege by the City of Santa Monica government, those hoping to develop the 215-acre property, and residents who resented the airport noise and pollution—even though they’d bought their property next to the airport, which had been in existence since 1917. SMO was once the world’s busiest single- runway airport and is the oldest in Los Angeles County. “Small businesses at SMO are being harassed and evicted out of existence,” Schiff wrote then.
Fast-forward 30 years and SMO continues to face detractors. The storied airport—once home of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation and notable for many historic flights—occupies five percent of the usable land in Santa Monica, one of the most valuable chunks of real estate in the world. Those who want to close the airport claim they want open space and parks and other shared land use. Ironically, the airport is considered open space and there is a park—soccer fields and a playground. It is home to Angel Flight West, the oldest charitable flying organization in the United States. It serves as a reliever for LAX, that behemoth international airport that keeps GA out and would probably love to use the airspace that SMO now protects—the reason air traffic arriving at LAX from the west crosses Santa Monica as high as it does is because SMO’s air space keeps traffic that high.
The airport’s economic impact has been valued at $275.2 million annually. It provides nearly 1,500 jobs. Its value as a reliever airport in the event of a natural disaster is unique. The FAA has offered to buy the homes the city has said are in “harm’s way” but the city refused the offer. The EPA’s studies report there are no unsafe levels of lead in the air or soil found on the airport environment.
All of these arguments have been cited at so many of the GA airports across the country, yet we lose airports every day. SMO stands as symbol for all general aviation airports in the United States. Its value is obvious to those who understand and a battleground for those who don’t.
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
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