AOPA, NBAA file friend of the court brief in Santa Monica suit

February 10, 2014

AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) have joined forces to file an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in support of an FAA motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit over the future of Santa Monica Municipal Airport. While the city of Santa Monica and the FAA have presented the 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 leaving the future of the Santa Monica airport to the city’s whim.

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 such time as 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 has assurance of a safe and efficient national transportation infrastructure. The closure of the Santa Monica airport, like so many airports across the United States, could create significant safety and congestion problems for air traffic in its geographic area, with ripple effects being felt nationwide. Santa Monica hosts more than 102,000 operations each year, an average of 280 per day—operations that could not readily be absorbed by other airports in the already congested Los Angeles Basin.

The filing warns that allowing the city of Santa Monica 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 these airports, the national air transportation system could be devastated, the associations argue.

And the amicus brief stresses that the airport is an important economic engine for Santa Monica and the surrounding area, hosting some 175 businesses and creating 1,500 jobs with an estimated economic output of $275 million a year.

“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.”

The associations filed the amicus brief after the FAA asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the city of Santa Monica over use of the airport property. The lawsuit is the latest in a long line of legal challenges aimed at closing the venerable field.

In its 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, attorneys for 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. But more than 65 years have passed since the city reached a property agreement with the federal government, and the city and has repeatedly acknowledged the government’s interest in maintaining the land as an airport over the intervening years.

The motion also argues that the constitutional claims are “unripe” because they can only be triggered by the government’s action to take control of the airport, events that have not taken place. 

The city of Santa Monica has repeatedly attempted to restrict operations or close the popular airport, which serves as an important 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.

“The judge who is going to decide the city’s latest attempt to gain control of the airport is entitled to know that there is more at stake than whether a piece of property stays as an airport or not,” said 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.”