AOPA has sought court recognition to support future intervention as the nation’s second-highest court weighs the fate of Santa Monica Municipal Airport in California.
The association on March 15 filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit a notice of intent to participate as a “friend of the court” in a case brought by the National Business Aviation Association and five individual petitioners in February challenging the FAA settlement with the city. That controversial deal took many by surprise in January (including airport tenants and advocacy groups), and while it does require the city to operate the long-embattled airport through 2028, it also allows the city to shorten the runway from 4,973 feet to 3,500 feet.
“The FAA and the city should not be allowed to bargain away this public right, and AOPA believes its participation in this case will help to prevent the loss of this ability to preserve our nation’s airports,” said AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead.
The settlement between the FAA and Santa Monica city officials was a surprise twist in a battle that has raged for decades, the FAA having consistently sided with airport tenants and advocates against the city’s repeated efforts to strangle and close the airport, which was once a point of civic pride.
NBAA challenged the validity of the agreement in February, and asked the D.C. Circuit to delay implementation of the settlement—and with that, any attempt to alter what is almost certainly now America’s most litigated runway—while the court reviews the challenge to the agreement. The FAA in February asked the D.C. Circuit to dismiss the challenge, putting the agency on the opposite side of airport tenants and advocates.
By joining the D.C. Circuit case through the filing of an amicus brief, AOPA is positioning all airport users to take action if the city violates any provisions in the FAA agreement, including stipulations that require the city to provide fuel and other aviation services through 2028. Mead explained that the legal move also positions AOPA to act if the federal government does not.
“We want enforcement rights to ensure the city lives up to its obligations,” Mead said. “If the city does not live up to its obligations and the FAA and Justice Department do not step up to enforce this agreement, AOPA wants users to have the right to enforce it in court.”
This latest legal move is part of the association’s long-term strategy to build support for extending the airport’s life far beyond 2028. That will require a coordinated effort by pilots, business leaders, and advocacy groups to shift deeply entrenched opposition stemming from a vocal minority of city residents who oppose the airport and have elected politicians sympathetic to their cause.
“Santa Monica Airport is an economic engine for the city, but it also touches people in ways they may not realize,” AOPA President Mark Baker said in February. “From organ donation transportation to emergency preparedness, the airport is an enormous asset, and over the next 12 years we will ensure everyone knows what they will be giving up if it goes away.”
With many election cycles to come, AOPA hopes that a combination of education and persuasion will build recognition in the community of all the benefits the airport provides.