The FAA is demanding answers from city officials in Santa Monica, California, and is clearly unwilling to accept at face value claims that the city will provide fuel, flight training, and aircraft maintenance services after kicking the current providers out of Santa Monica Municipal Airport.
The agency put the city on notice Sept. 26 that it has opened an investigation into the city’s recent initiation of eviction proceedings against both fixed base operators, who received those notices from the city Sept. 15. That was a month after the FAA ruled Aug. 15 that the city is obligated to keep its 2003 promise to “make the airport available as an airport for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds and classes of aeronautical activities,” as mandated by federal law for communities that receive federal funds for airport improvements.
In separate subpoenas served on city officials Sept. 26, the FAA demanded from the city documents and testimony regarding the city’s stated intention to provide aeronautical services after the current providers are evicted. The subpoenas require the city to provide, among other things, detailed information about which city employees provide or would be intended to provide flight training, aircraft maintenance, and related services. The agency also demands to know what tools and equipment the city will deploy, and where, exactly, it plans to conduct flight instruction, and with which specific aircraft, among other things.
The FAA action follows a plea for assistance from Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers, the businesses directly affected by the city’s strategy to circumvent federal law and its obligation to federal taxpayers for promises made prior to and as recently as 2003. The airport serves an important role as a general aviation reliever in the busy Southern California airspace, situated 8 miles from Los Angeles International Airport. AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association have both sought to intervene in a federal court case appealing the FAA decision of Aug. 15 before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Both associations noted that closing the airport would not only affect those who use and base their aircraft on the 227 acres in the heart of the crowded city, but it also would add to airspace congestion and set a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize a system that provides federal funds for airports nationwide.
Santa Monica Mayor Tony Vazquez told the Los Angeles Times that the FAA investigation is an “overreach.”
“Our priority is putting the community first and exercising our rights as owner and operator of the airport,” Vazquez told the newspaper. “Now the FAA is clearly on a fishing expedition to protect Washington special interests who fear losing corporate profits.”
Vazquez and other city leaders have not acknowledged the airport’s $250 million contribution to the local economy, which was documented in an economic study along with the 1,500 jobs the airport directly and indirectly supports. The city has preferred to drive aviation companies out of business, as in the case of the recent eviction notices, or buy them out of business, as it did by paying $450,000 to Justice Aviation to depart the airport quietly in May. The city celebrates the value of tourism on its own website (an estimated 8.3 million annual visitors and 13,500 jobs supported by tourism) without a word about the role the airport plays in facilitating travel to and from this congested metropolitan area.
The FAA gave the city 10 days to respond, and demanded in-person testimony on Oct. 12 to explain how the city plans to live up to its obligations after evicting all providers of aeronautical services. The agency noted various actions taken by the city including limits on fuel sales, adoption of an airport leasing policy that has led to the denial of leases to aeronautical service providers, and a city council vote to close the airport in 2018, or sooner, if legally permitted.
“These actions may be causing, and appear intended to cause, impairment of the airport, including but not limited to, a de facto closure of the airport in violation of applicable law,” the agency wrote, noting that the city would normally have 30 days to respond but, under federal law, the FAA shortened the time to 10 days under circumstances that require an expedited response, including the Oct. 15 deadline to vacate imposed by the city on both FBOs.
“The FAA strongly recommends that the City withdraw the notices to vacate until such time as this matter can be resolved,” the agency added.
AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead said the association is pleased to see the FAA taking prompt action, particularly with the city clearly flaunting the agency’s previous ruling, not to mention court rulings against the city’s past attempts to close or curtail operations at the airport. It is a fight that has dragged on for years, and Santa Monica officials, Mead said, “should cease their efforts to close this airport by strangulation and live up to the promises made and the obligations incurred when the city accepted money from federal taxpayers.”