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FAA rejects Santa Monica appeal

City obligated to operate airport until 2023

The FAA issued a final decision Aug. 15 denying an appeal from the city of Santa Monica, California, whose leaders have fought for many years to escape federal grant obligations and close Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO). Tenants, pilots, and advocates including AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association have consistently fought back, most recently securing a ruling from the FAA that reaffirms the city is obligated to keep its 2003 promise to operate the airport until 2023.
The Federal Aviation Administration is one of the many government agencies that have influence over general aviation. Photo by David Tulis.

The city’s unsuccessful administrative appeal is not expected to be the end of the decades-long battle over the airport, which occupies 227 sought-after acres, supports 1,500 jobs, and contributes $250 million to the local economy. As the FAA Associate Administrator for Airports Eduardo A. Angeles noted in his Aug. 15 final decision, the airport also is in a congested air traffic area and serves as a reliever for Los Angeles International Airport, seven miles away. The city remains bound by assurances it gave in 2003 when accepting $240,600 for airport improvements.

Municipal leaders have made no secret their desire to close the airport, and appealed a December 2015 determination by the FAA, which was prompted by a complaint filed with the agency by airport supporters who argued that the city had already violated its obligations by claiming (including in the context of legal proceedings) that it was no longer obligated to run the airport and make it available to the public. The city has long claimed that the clock ran out in 2014, 20 years after a 1994 grant award.

That $1.6 million award did not cover all of the work, however. The city asked to expand the scope of work in 1999. In 2003, the FAA awarded an additional $240,600 the city had sought to pay for a portion of the extra work done. The city more recently attempted to make a case that local officials did not believe or understand that the additional money awarded in 2003 would restart the 20-year obligation that requires airport operators who receive public money to ensure the airport continues to serve the public. The city, in its appeal of the 2015 FAA ruling, further contended that the parties filing the complaint had not suffered harm because the city has not yet actually closed the airport.

AOPA and the other airport advocates countered that they have indeed suffered harm, in part by being unable to plan for the future because the city has, by claiming to be free to do with the airport as it pleases, put the airport’s future in doubt.

“The Associate Administrator finds that the City’s Appeal does not contain persuasive arguments sufficient to reverse any portion of the Director’s Determination,” Angeles wrote, referring to the 2015 determination appealed by the city. “Stating, as the City does, that it has ‘not committed a violation of any Act or Grant Assurance’ while at the same time taking the position that SMO is no longer obligated, is not coherent. There is not a valid alternative argument to be made.”

AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead said the city is expected to appeal this latest decision from the FAA to federal court, and AOPA will continue to participate in the legal battle to protect the airport.

“The FAA’s ruling was spot on,” Mead said. He noted that Santa Monica “implored” the FAA for the 2003 grant, and the city “needs to play by the same rules as airports all over the country do and abide by the grant assurances they made.”

Mead noted the final FAA decision (which spans 17 pages, 21 pages including citations) includes a thorough analysis of the legal issues and history involved, and clearly presents the legal basis of the FAA decision to enforce the city’s obligation to the public. It is, therefore, a decision unlikely to be overturned by a judge.

“The city should stop wasting taxpayer dollars on litigation it’s going to lose,” Mead said.

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Advocacy, Airport Advocacy

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