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Santa Monica City Council considering plan to remove paved runway safety area

The Santa Monica City Council has already shortened the airport’s runway, driven away jet operations, and put flight schools out of business. But the short-sightedness of the current City Council is showing its colors once again after soliciting bids to remove pavement at each end of the runway safety area.

An aerial view shows the updated runway configuration at Santa Monica Airport in California. Photo courtesy of Mark Holtzman, West Coast Aerial Photography.

Alarmed by the reckless proposal, AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association sent a letter on Oct. 22 to Mayor Ted Winterer and the Santa Monica City Council requesting that they fully reject the proposal, citing safety issues for operators and nearby residents.

Rather than killing the idea at its Oct. 23 meeting, the council unanimously voted to rebid the project to remove about 750 feet of pavement despite objections from some local community members and aviation advocates.

The city originally planned to use airport revenue to tear up the pavement. Upon learning that the FAA won’t permit that, the council elected to rebid the project and will need to use city tax dollars Instead.

Local pilots and airport supporters attended the meeting to voice their objection to the city’s project as it would not be in the interest of public safety.

David Hopkins, a Santa Monica resident and Santa Monica Airport Association board member, cited the city’s Office of Emergency Management, which listed the airport and its runway as a critical and essential piece of infrastructure. He called the plan “a gigantic waste of money” and said that airport commission members who vehemently support the project have a vested interest in seeing the runway closed as they reside within a quarter mile of the runway.

Edward Story, a pilot and board member of the Santa Monica Airport Association and the California Pilots Association, asked the council to reconsider its proposal, saying, “There is no pilot who would say ‘I want a shorter runway.’” Story argued that a reduced runway compromises safety for residents in the event of a natural disaster. 

A recent safety analysis conducted by Dr. Antonio Trani, an expert in air transportation, airport engineering, and simulation and modeling, confirmed AOPA's and NBAA’s concerns. 

Dr. Trani’s study states that although accidents at the airport are rare, in the event of a runway overshoot or undershoot, keeping the existing pavement would ensure safety margins for those aboard the aircraft and for nearby neighbors. Over a 10-year period, the existing pavement would be 66 percent more effective in preventing accidents than the proposals under consideration.

According to Trani’s study, “The provision of 750 feet of paved areas at both ends of runway 3-21 provides an additional safety margin for aircraft operating at Santa Monica Municipal airport today. A plan to remove pavement from the existing runway to comply with the minimum 300-foot long RSA [runway safety area] area seems unwise and could adversely affect the safety of the operations at SMO for the next ten years.”

The associations agreed, “The current modifications that have been made to the runway would not prevent all of the pavement from being used in an emergency, but the City now would permanently foreclose that option.”

Aside from the safety implications, the city has never explained the motive for removing the “excess” pavement in the Runway Safety Areas; its objective in reducing the runway by 40 percent was to reduce jet and charter operations—in which it succeeded.

The aircraft fleet at Santa Monica has significantly changed. According to Trani’s study, large business aircraft such as Gulfstreams and Bombardier Challengers used to operate regularly off of the longer runway, but since the runway reduction, it’s mostly small and mid-size jets that frequent the field. Now, 73.5 percent of the airport operations are performed by single- and multiengine piston aircraft, 14.6 percent of the operations are turboprop aircraft, and 5.1 percent are jet aircraft.

Even more perplexing than denigrating safety is the fact that the city’s project will be funded by taxpayer dollars. In an Aug. 31 letter (which has not been made part of the public record), the FAA’s regional office specifically recommended that none of the proposed project be funded by airport revenue since it would serve no aeronautical purpose. In preliminary reports, options for pavement removal showed costs ranging from $3 million to $6 million.

AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Advocacy Jim Coon said, “It’s sad that City Council members cannot see the importance of the Santa Monica Airport as an irreplaceable asset. The council’s assault on this airport has and continues to waste millions of tax dollars provided by hard working residents for an effort that will ultimately lead to more traffic and more congestion, which is the last thing anyone wants or needs. It’s time the residents of Santa Monica get involved, before it’s too late, and replace the current council with individuals who will actually listen to their concerns.”

Amelia Walsh
Communications and Research Specialist
AOPA Comms and Research Specialist Amelia Walsh joined AOPA in 2017. Named after the famous aviatrix, she's a private pilot working on her instrument rating in a Colombia 350.
Topics: Advocacy, Airport, Airport Advocacy

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