A battle GA must win

Santa Monica Airport's fate has many implications

December 30, 2013

Once a key strategic asset for a nation at war, Santa Monica Municipal Airport has survived many attempts on its life over the years.

The latest threat is a lawsuit filed Oct. 31 by the city of Santa Monica, Calif., in an effort to take full control of the airport’s fate and release the city from its obligation to operate an airport on the 227 acres in question. A ruling on the lawsuit that will initially be made by a U.S. District Court judge could have implications for the long-term survival of hundreds of other airports across the country.

For decades, the airport has faced a concerted (and expensive) effort by local politicians to attack its use by any means available: landing fees and noise abatement requirements, jet traffic restrictions, pollution studies, and lawsuits. Notwithstanding the airport’s significant value to the local economy, or its importance to the aviation infrastructure of the region and the nation, the city has spent millions on its unilateral attempts to curtail operations, or eliminate the airport altogether.

The war

Airplanes began using the field as far back as 1917, and Santa Monica’s airport blossomed in the 1920s, when Donald Douglas established an aircraft company that was to play a legendary role in both civil and military aviation. Founded in the back room of a barber shop, Douglas Aircraft grew into a giant—with Santa Monica Airport its first true headquarters.

The airport was originally named for Greayer “Grubby” Clover, who volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver during World War I, and joined the American forces as the country entered the war. It was World War II, however, that sowed the seeds of the current legal dispute. The federal government, in the interest of national defense, took control of Santa Monica Airport (and many others) by leasing the airport property from the city.

By 1948, with the war over and the federal government ready to return many of these vital assets (many of which had been substantially improved) to their host communities, Congress had passed a law that allowed the federal government to relinquish its interests in property, but only if certain terms were part of the deal in doing so. Following the map laid out in that law, the city asked for the airport property back, the federal government agreed, and the transfer was made. The transfer agreement, like many that were written during that time, included a term that obligated the city to continue the operation of the airport in perpetuity, unless the federal government agreed that the property could be used otherwise. Specifically, the 1948 transfer agreement required in part, “That no property transferred by this instrument shall be used, leased, sold, salvaged, or disposed of by the party of the second part (the city) for other than airport purposes without the written consent of the Civil Aeronautics Administrator …”

In large part, the city’s Oct. 31 lawsuit directly challenges the validity of the transfer agreement signed by city officials in 1948, arguing that the agreement could have no effect after the federal government’s remaining leasehold interest expired by its own terms in 1953. Therefore, the city suggests, any federal government attempt to now bind the city to the continued operation of the airport constitutes an unconstitutional taking of property.

AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead expects the city will attempt to bolster its arguments by citing a 1984 agreement that settled a lawsuit filed by the FAA after the city unilaterally adopted several ordinances aimed at reducing traffic and noise at the airport. That settlement included an expiration date: July 1, 2015—a date that airport opponents have seized on as the moment when the city will be free to do with the airport what it wants. Mead said the federal government did not, however, relinquish its rights under the 1948 agreement in the 1984 settlement, nor concede that the 1948 agreement was somehow no longer in effect. The court may have to decide this question, along with the argument of whether the expiration of the federal government’s lease interest terminates the 1948 transfer agreement that is similar, if not identical, to so many others across the country. AOPA Vice President of Airport Advocacy Bill Dunn said the FAA lists more than 200 airports across the country subject to similar agreements made following World War II.

SMO has been under pressure for years.

The view that Santa Monica’s fate has profound implications for many airports is shared by other experts in the aviation community: Richard Asper, chairman of Aviation Professionals Group, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., consulting firm that works with airport operators across the country, said he finds the city’s arguments “disingenuous,” and contends local interests must never be allowed to override the imperative to maintain an air transportation system that is vital to everyone, to the economy as a whole.

“Santa Monica rightfully should be the cause célèbre of aviation interests to draw the proverbial line in the sand,” Asper said. “I’m concerned that we need to all really, truly focus on it.”

There are those who take a different view. Local organizations have formed with the often-expressed goal of closing the airport—notably Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic and Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution. They are working at the local, state, and federal levels, lobbying on numerous fronts, circulating petitions, and speaking out in public forums about issues of noise, air pollution, and safety. The mayor and city council have proved sympathetic to their cause, and willing to spend public money in that regard. The Santa Monica Mirror reported in 2012 that the city spent well in excess of $1 million on attorney fees in a futile attempt to defend city-imposed restrictions on jet traffic first proposed in 2002—by the airport commission. The measure, which prohibited about 7 percent of the airport’s total traffic based on approach speeds, was struck down by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009.

The airport is not without its allies in the local community: pilots, mechanics, aircraft owners, and others who work at or use the airport banded together to form Friends of Santa Monica Airport with its own website making arguments to counter the anti-airport movement. Since 1967, Santa Monica Airport Association has also taken up the airport's cause, representing local pilots and others dedicated to "improve directly or indirectly the Santa Monica Municipal Airport and General Aviation." AOPA commissioned a poll in 2011 that found very little opposition among likely voters, who are far more concerned about car and truck traffic, development, and congestion.

Turning point

The airport’s support was broader still back in the 1940s, when Douglas Aircraft Co. built tens of thousands of aircraft for the war effort in Santa Monica, and other factory sites. The Douglas plant, where key assets including the DC-3 (designated the C-47 for military use) were made, greatly increased the strategic importance of Santa Monica Airport at the time, and the federal government took steps to defend it from attack. The plant employed upward of 40,000 workers and the airport enjoyed community support like it has not seen since.

All of that began to change at the close of the 1950s, when the city rejected a request by Douglas Aircraft to extend the runway to allow local production of passenger jets. The company shifted its jet production to Long Beach, Calif., and that, according to Robert Trimborn, marked a turning point.

“When they pulled up stakes and went down to Long Beach, that changed the whole context,” said Trimborn, who retired this year after a 17-year run as the airport’s manager and director. Trimborn is a student of the airport’s history, and has been a firsthand witness to the travails of recent decades. He said the arrival of business jets marked a turning point in community relations.

“You had these brand-new, super-loud business jets … it really was a game-changer in the 60s, mid to late 60s,” Trimborn said. Noise complaints have been persistent ever since, their volume and presence in the public debate amplified today by the Internet and social media. “The jet age, (the) business jet age was a tremendous change in the way airports, particularly urban airports interacted with the communities around them.”

The jet age

Business jets have become considerably quieter over the years, and the volume of traffic at Santa Monica has declined from its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, when annual aircraft operations exceeded 300,000. The FAA counted 165,130 operations in 2012, most of them itinerant GA flights (there is no scheduled commercial service at the airport). Piston aircraft account for the vast majority of those operations, but the jets still draw the ire of local opponents, and city officials.  Today, 260 aircraft are based at the airport, only seven of which are jets.

Airport opponents have also cited air pollution among their chief concerns, and there have been several studies done. In 2006, AOPA successfully lobbied against a state bill that would have required an eighth such study, and prevailed again in the face of a similar effort in 2007

To date, there has been no documented evidence of air pollution attributable to aircraft operations that exceeds any state or federal air quality standard, Trimborn noted. It was a hot topic when he took over the job in 1996, and continues to generate headlines. LA Weekly published a story Dec. 16 with the headline, “Santa Monica Airport Provides Some of L.A.'s Worst Air Pollution,” detailing a study by the University of California Los Angeles in which researchers drove around various neighborhoods collecting air samples, and concluded that the North Westdale neighborhood in particular is “heavily impacted” by ultrafine particles, and combustion byproducts.

Trimborn said that what is missing from that report is the fact that the airport handles a tiny fraction of the jet traffic at Los Angeles International—just four miles away.

“If the 20, 25, 30 jet departures a day out of Santa Monica somehow adversely affects the west side’s air quality, LAX must wipe out the South Bay,” Trimborn said, noting that ultrafine particles are also generated by gas stoves and other gas appliances, and have not been scientifically linked to health problems. As for previous studies, including those conducted by state and federal environmental agencies, “they clearly showed the airport’s emissions impact did not exceed any state or federal standard.”

Trimborn said community concerns about noise and pollution cannot be dismissed out of hand, even if there is little or no science to support those concerns.

“It’s a perceptions and reality thing,” Trimborn said. “You can’t look at it from just the outside of the egg.”

Perception and reality may also be separated when it comes to public opinion. The 2011 survey of 400 likely voters assessed their concerns about various local issues, including traffic congestion and development. The airport ranked 16 out of 18 areas of concern, with just 2 percent of those surveyed in 40-minute interviews expressing that concern. Only 1 percent of those surveyed expressed a desire for the city to take action on the airport.

Dunn detailed the survey results in a May 2012 letter to the mayor, noting that the survey was conducted using accepted practices, including randomization of participant selection, and that most respondents (53 percent) had lived in Santa Monica more than 25 years. In all, 75 percent had resided locally at least 15 years.

“Santa Monica elected officials are not representing their constituents,” said Dunn, who has participated in countless community discussions and was in Santa Monica when interviewed by telephone for this story. “The majority of folks that are attending the city council meetings are from Los Angeles.”

The bottom line

A 2011 study conducted by HR&A Advisors calculated that the airport, including businesses and nonprofit organizations on adjacent land, generates $275 million in local economic activity each year, and supports 1,475 jobs. The collective total would rank the airport among the top 10 employers, city officials told the Mirror.

Closing Santa Monica Airport, a significant reliever airport, would funnel more traffic into other Los Angeles airports, increasing congestion and eventually delaying airline and cargo flights, not to mention the domino effect the delays could have on airports and the flow of traffic elsewhere across the country. Multiply that effect by an unknown number of other airports that could eventually fall if the city’s new tactic succeeds, and the entire system could be stressed to a disastrous point. To Asper, Santa Monica is the first domino in that line, and a fight the aviation community cannot afford to lose.

“We just can’t afford it,” Asper said. “We have to make this one a public outcry.”

Mead said there is no question AOPA will take action, as it has done for decades, time and again.

Trimborn said he is hopeful that the rich history of the airport will not be lost in the discussion—it is the birthplace of many modern aviation firms, either direct descendants or spinoffs founded by former Douglas Aircraft employees. The story of Santa Monica Airport is very much the story of American aviation, and the can-do spirit that drives innovation and technological achievement to this day.

“It’s a culture that was birthed in the United States and changed the world,” Trimborn said. “Santa Monica airport was a major player in all of that.”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.