Explaining Southern California's economy

Santa Monica Airport: Business asset or too close for comfort?

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Ken Scarboro/KPCC

Joe Justice in front of one of his many training airplanes at his flight school, Justice Aviation.

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Zach Corr lands a friend's plane at Santa Monica Airport on his way to San Diego.

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Neighbors of Santa Monica Airport have complained about noise from the aircraft taking off and landing, and they post signs asking pilots to fly quietly.

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Aircraft in the hangars at Justice Aviation flight school.

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Ken Scarboro/KPCC

Zach Corr talks about recent flights with friends while stopped at Santa Monica Airport on his way from Hayward to San diego.

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Ken Scarboro/KPCC

Simon Ray finishes a flying lesson with Daniel Valdez. They flew into Santa Monica Airport from San Diego.

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Ken Scarboro/KPCC

The City of Santa Monica is suing the FAA for control over the Santa Monica Airport's future.


Last week, the city of Santa Monica sued the Federal Aviation Administration over future control of the Santa Monica Airport.  The federal lawsuit asks the court to declare that the city controls the airport’s land and that in 2015, its obligation to keep operating the airport ends.  

According to FAA data, in September the Airport saw nearly 7,000 operations — takeoffs or landings — and many city officials and neighbors of the airport would like that activity to be far less, or none at all.

 "The bottom line is everyone agrees that the status quo will not be tolerated," Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor told KPCC.  

O'Connor’s main concern is safety.  The city filed the lawsuit a month after  the crash of a small jet at the airport killed 4 people.  The crash gave new momentum to organized campaigns to close the airport, or at least reduce its air traffic. O'Connor says the neighborhoods around the airport have also dealt with airplane noise and exhaust pollution for years. 

"As jets have become faster, growth in corporate jet travel, all of that has drastically changed the impact of aviation to the people and to the area," O'Connor said.  She's among those who believe the airport should close and become something else — like a park — but says she’s keeping an open mind as the city develops a vision for the airport’s future.

Santa Monica must first resolve an on-going dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA has long maintained that Santa Monica is obligated to operate the airport indefinitely because the city acquired the airport land from the government in 1948 for free.  Santa Monica believes its obligations, under a 1984 agreement, end in 2015.  Its lawsuit asks the court to decide. 

The possible 2015 end date puts business owners like Joe Justice in an awkward situation. He runs Justice Aviation, a flight school and aircraft rental service that has operated at the Santa Monica Airport for 22 years.  He says if the airport shuts down, his and four other flight schools located there would have to move or close, in addition to the aviation companies, airplane repair and pilot supply shops and the popular Typhoon restaurant, which overlooks the runway.  

Justice cites a study the city of Santa Monica itself commissioned two years ago that measured the airport's annual economic impact at $275 million.  The study also said the airport supports nearly 1,500 jobs.  

"I do believe that there are businesses here located in Santa Monica with employees in Santa Monica who, if the airport closed, would probably say it’s much easier for us to have an office over in Van Nuys," Justice says.  "In the event they close this airport, they probably will see an exodus of a few businesses."  

The airport is convenient for jet-setters in places like Brentwood and Beverly Hills, but for some Santa Monicans and residents of Mar Vista and Venice,  it’s a little too convenient.

They’ve had to cope with the noise from regular flyovers by single and twin engine planes. And the idea of student pilots learning to fly right above their homes is unsettling to say the least.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association  (AOPA) says about 267 privately owned aircraft are based at the Santa Monica airport.  Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger are among the celebrities known to keep planes there.  The AOPA’s Bill Dunn says it’s an important alternative for private and corporate jets in the Los Angeles basin.

"So rather than a corporate operator flying into LAX or Ontario, they’re encouraged to go to Santa Monica instead, so that the airlines operate in the most efficient manner and with less traffic than normally would be if you mixed all the traffic into one airport," Dunn says. 

Dunn calls Santa Monica the most embattled general aviation airport in the country. He says because the FAA counts so much on its relief to LAX, the battle over its future will continue.  

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