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Regional Affairs Brief: Santa Monica Municipal Airport

Regional Affairs Brief: Santa Monica Municipal Airport

The issue: Santa Monica attempts to implement restrictions

In March 2008, the city of Santa Monica, Calif., adopted a new ordinance prohibiting certain aircraft from operating at Santa Monica Airport (SMO). The ban would impact jets that have approach speeds of between 139 and 191 mph. They include aircraft such as the Gulfstream IV, Bombardier Challenger 604, and Cessna Citation X.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wasted no time in responding to the new Santa Monica ordinance that would ban the larger, faster “Category C and D” jet aircraft from SMO. The ordinance was set to go into effect April 24. After the city council adopted the ordinance late in the evening on Tuesday, March 25, the FAA issued an “Order to Show Cause” on March 26, mandating the city to explain how the ordinance did not violate existing federal grant assurances between the city of Santa Monica and the FAA.

The FAA also issued a cease and desist order to the city of Santa Monica after the city tried to enforce the ban at SMO. The order is the latest move in an increasingly contentious fight over access to the publicly funded airport.

The FAA issued the order April 24, the same day the ban was to take effect and one day after the city refused to withdraw a letter warning pilots that they could face fines and even jail time for violating the ban. After receiving the order, city officials held meetings with the U.S. Attorney’s office and did not immediately enforce the ban.

Federal attorneys sought and received a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court. The temporary restraining order is the first step in the process to overturn the restrictions after almost six years of discussions with the city that failed to resolve disputes related to public safety and aircraft access to the general aviation airport.

Subsequently, on May 15, 2008, the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles heard the city of Santa Monica’s appeal to the temporary restraining order issued on April 24, 2008. The court upheld the FAA’s restraining order. As a result, the city of Santa Monica is now appealing the lower court’s decision and the temporary restraining order that will be heard in the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

On the evening of May 27, the FAA issued their director’s determination (DD) on the order to show cause and complaint that told the city three things:

  1. The airport is obligated until 2023 through Federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants.
  2. The Surplus Property Act obligates the airport in perpetuity.
  3. The FAA will act through the Department of Transportation to withhold ALL city of Santa Monica federal transportation funding.

Airport history

Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) is an important general aviation reliever airport owned and operated by the city of Santa Monica, California. Given the airport’s proximity to the downtown Los Angeles business district, it has become a popular facility and is home to more than 400 based aircraft and more than 165,000 operations per year, 60 percent of which are itinerant aircraft.

A single Runway 03-21 serves the airport. This runway measures 4,987 feet in length and 150 feet in width and safely accommodates all aircraft currently using the airport, including the Gulfstream G-IV. Due to the airport’s location and surrounding terrain, it is impossible to achieve a standard runway area (RSA) at the runway ends. RSAs are designed to provide a safe stopping area for aircraft that leave the runway pavement. Residential and other noncompatible land uses make it impossible to establish runway protection zones (RPZs) at either end of the runway. FAA airport design standards use RPZs to avoid concentrations of persons in the areas immediately off the end of a runway. There are a number of large general aviation airports with non-standard runway safety areas throughout the United States.

In 1984, the FAA and the city executed an agreement that addressed a number of disputes and litigation concerning aircraft noise impacts on the community and access restrictions. Under this agreement, “the city must operate and maintain the airport as a viable functioning facility without derogation of its role as a general aviation reliever airport...or its capacity in terms of runway length and width, taxiway system, and runway weight bearing strength until July 1, 2015.” In return, the city is able to prohibit the takeoff of aircraft between the hours of 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays and from 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Single event noise exposure levels are capped at 95 dB.

Despite this agreement, local residents continue to express their concerns regarding the noise, pollution, and jet traffic at the airport. The city has reacted to those concerns from the local community by proposing various new access restrictions. However, local pilots have protested these attempts, and the FAA has ruled in their favor, often citing the 1984 agreement as the basis for no additional restrictions.

Since approximately 2000, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has proposed reducing the length of Runway 03-21 to establish a full 1,000-foot RSA. The FAA responded, “A reduction of the runway length to 4,000 feet would restrict the ability of certain types of aircraft to operate at the airport and would be contrary to the city’s commitment under the [1984] Agreement.”

On April 23, 2007, the city of Santa Monica passed a resolution to shorten the runway by a total of 1,200 feet—600 feet at each end. The FAA is urging the city to consider enhancing the runway’s safety through the use of an engineered material arresting system (EMAS). This lightweight, crushable concrete decelerates the aircraft when it rolls through the material. To date, there have been four incidents where the technology has worked successfully to keep aircraft from overrunning the runway and, in several cases, has prevented injury to passengers and damage to the aircraft.

Currently at dispute is the size of the proposed EMAS installation. The FAA has proposed an EMAS installation that would reduce the length of Runway 03-21 by approximately145 feet and utilize as much land as is available at each end. The city has rejected this proposal, claiming it is inadequate.

The accident history at SMO does not indicate any discernable trends with regards to jet aircraft. The majority of the accidents on the airport have involved piston-powered aircraft landing short. Between 1981 and 2007, there have been six runway overruns at SMO. All six of these incidents involved piston-powered aircraft. Reducing the length of the runway could have an adverse impact on safety.

For the past several years, California Assembly Member Ted Lieu has introduced a bill that would require SMO to keep statistics to help gauge the effects of aircraft pollution on the health of nearby residents. Although the bill never passed, a recent study conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and funded by the EPA found elevated levels of lead near runway sites and surrounding communities, but at levels that are still below federal and state standards. A final report that will include the full analysis of the study’s results is being written.

The airport last accepted a federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grant in 1994. Approximately $9,949,563 in federal AIP grants has been invested at SMO. The airport once housed an Army facility and is considered federal surplus property, effectively requiring the city to operate it as an airport in perpetuity.

AOPA’s position

This airport has been under threat for decades, and AOPA has worked hard to keep it open and accessible. AOPA has been engaged in these challenges with SMO at local, state, and federal levels. We will continue to fight for this vital reliever airport and stand ready to assist the FAA in this most recent battle as requested.

Importance to AOPA members

The battle between the FAA and Santa Monica stands to be a landmark case. If the city of Santa Monica is allowed to implement these restrictions, the impact to grant assurances and surplus property quit claim deed and covenants will be a blow to airport protections and preservation efforts. Essentially, the power to implement restrictions to a publicly funded airport will have been conveyed to the airport sponsor rather than the FAA.


1979: Santa Monica votes to ban jets larger than Category B-II from the airport.

1984: Santa Monica settles a federal lawsuit with the FAA, AOPA, and others resulting from the ban. As part of the settlement, the city agrees to keep the airport open and accessible through 2015.

July 2002: The Santa Monica Airport Commission recommends that the city council create an ordinance banning Category C and D jets from the airport.

March 25, 2008: Santa Monica City Council unanimously passes an ordinance banning Category C and D jets from Santa Monica Municipal.

April 7, 2008: The city responds to an FAA order to show cause, defending the ban as a safety measure.

April 14, 2008: Santa Monica issues an enforcement letter, warning aircraft operators of the impending ban and threatening possible fines or jail time for violators.

April 21, 2008: The FAA sends a letter asking Santa Monica to withdraw its enforcement letter pending a review of the legality of the ban.

April 22, 2008: Santa Monica replies to the FAA, refusing to withdraw its enforcement letter.

April 24, 2008: Santa Monica moves to enforce the jet ban; the FAA issues a cease and desist order.

April 28, 2008: A federal judge issues a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from enforcing the jet ban.

May 15, 2008: The U.S. District Court in Los Angeles hears the city of Santa Monica’s appeal to the temporary restraining order and upholds the order. The city subsequently appeals to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

May 27, 2008: The FAA issues their director’s determination (DD) on the order to show cause and complaint.

November 19, 2008: The 9 th District Appeals Court hears arguments in Santa Monica’s challenge to the U.S. District Court’s decision that upheld the temporary restraining order.

March 16-19, 2009: FAA Part 16 hearing, requested by Santa Monica, held in Long Beach.

May 8, 2009: The 9 th District Appeals Court upholds FAA’s cease and desist order, preventing Santa Monica from enforcing the ban.

May 14, 2009: An FAA hearing officer rules Santa Monica could not ban category C and D aircraft from the airport, citing the ban as a violation of the Surplus Property Act and FAA grant Assurances.

May 29, 2009: Santa Monica appeals May 14 th decision to FAA Associate Administrator.

June 8, 2009: FAA Associate Administrator issues the Final Agency Decision, ending the administrative process begun in early 2008. The decision narrows the issues to be resolved to solely Grant Assurance #22—Economic Discrimination, but otherwise generally upholds the Hearing Officer’s findings. Santa Monica may now choose to move the issue to the U.S. Court of Appeals either in the 9 th Circuit or the DC Circuit Court. Once the city selects the court venue, AOPA is prepared to enter legal briefs supporting the FAA’s position.

September 1, 2009 – City files appeal to FAA order with the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit

October 29, 2009AOPA petitions US Court of Appeals for permission to file brief on issue with court. Court grants AOPA petition.

June 28, 2010AOPA Amicus Brief filed with US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit

October 14, 2010 – Court of Appeals holds oral arguments. AOPA participates.

January 21, 2011Court of Appeals denies city’s request for reconsideration and upholds FAA Final Determination.

April 20, 2011 – Los Angeles City Council passes resolution approving use of L.A. city Washington, D.C., lobbyists to work with federal officials to modify flight patterns at Santa Monica airport and close the existing ix flight schools. AOPA strongly opposes the resolution with a letter to the Los Angeles City Council.

Sept. 10, 2011 (postponed) – In an effort to turn the tide of public opinion and build relationships with the surrounding community, airport support group Friends of Santa Monica Airport is hosting a Day at the Airport. The outreach gives community members a chance to take a discovery flight, talk with pilots, and find out more about general aviation; AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Ken Fuller is working with other local pilots to improve the relationship between airport neighbors and the pilot community.

Updated: Aug. 31, 2011