President's Position: A reprieve, not a rout

It’s not over in Santa Monica

March 6, 2014

mark bakerThe entire general aviation community has a victory to celebrate, even as we recognize that this win is by no means final. In the middle of February, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that threatened the very existence of one of the country’s most venerable—and most contentious—suburban GA airports (see “Briefing: AOPA Action,” page 40).

California’s Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) was at the heart of a lawsuit brought by the City of Santa Monica. The city council would like to reclaim control of the land that houses the airport so it can redevelop the property. Although the suit was primarily about real estate issues, it was really part of a larger, ongoing effort to close the airport.

The judge’s action came after the FAA filed a motion to dismiss, and AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) jointly filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief supporting the FAA’s motion.

This is a big win for airport supporters, but it is by no means the last word on Santa Monica Municipal Airport’s future. The city council is busy considering its options, and we are prepared for the long and arduous fight over Santa Monica Municipal Airport to move to a new front.

I want to talk about this airport not only because it is vitally important in its own right, but also because it’s representative of something much larger. Even if you live and fly thousands of miles from Santa Monica’s golden beaches, this fight matters to you. Santa Monica Municipal Airport could be considered a canary in a coal mine, and if it were to disappear, many other important airports would also be at risk.

The City of Santa Monica received the airport property from the federal government after World War II on the condition that it continue to use the property as an airport. More than 200 of the nation’s airports operate under similar agreements, including Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles International, and San Francisco International airports, as well as many others large and small. It’s easy to imagine what would happen to our national air transportation system if the agreements that keep Santa Monica Municipal Airport and other airports open were to collapse.

Not only would closing Santa Monica Municipal Airport set a dangerous precedent for all of those other airports, it also could close some 175 businesses, cost 1,500 jobs, and put an end to $275 million a year in economic output attributable to the airport. And that says nothing of the increased safety risk and congestion that would result from trying to accommodate Santa Monica Municipal Airport’s 102,000 annual operations at other airports within the busy Los Angeles Basin.

Perhaps the strangest part of the entire debate over the airport’s future is the fact that Santa Monica residents don’t want to see the airport closed and would rather city officials focus on concerns such as traffic, parking, growth, education, and schools. In fact, in a 2011 survey conducted by an independent consultant, the airport ranked sixteenth out of 17 issues of concern to residents. In the same survey, 54 percent said the airport benefits the community and 53 percent said they want to keep the airport open. So why are some in Santa Monica city government working so hard and investing so much in trying to get rid of this valuable asset?

The answer is unclear, but there’s no reason to believe this judge’s decision—no matter how scathing—will persuade city officials to end their anti-airport campaign.

The city council is already engaged in what airport supporters label a “starvation” strategy to close SMO—refusing to extend leases beyond July of 2015. And there is talk of removing a big chunk of runway and reducing airport services. Clearly, some anti-airport forces are looking for ways to reduce the field’s value and utility so it will die a “natural” death.

Although the judge’s ruling is a win for airport supporters—and one worth celebrating—it’s more of a reprieve than a rout. The bottom line is this: The Santa Monica city council will keep looking for ways to close the airport, and we will keep fighting to keep it open—no matter what it takes.

AOPA President Mark Baker is a former “airport kid” who believes airports are some of the greatest spots on Earth.

Email mark@aopa.org