SMO Facing Further Efforts at Airport Closure
On July 1, 2015, Santa Monica Airport in southern California may be a completely different airfield, if the city of Santa Monica has its way. On that date, the city wants to end all fuel sales, not renew any aviation-related leases and cut 2,000 feet from the airport’s 4,973-foot runway.
Whether that can happen is debatable, but the city took a first step at discouraging traffic at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) on April 30, when the city council voted to impose a new landing fee schedule that not only more than doubles the fees but also applies them to all traffic–including based aircraft–and not just transient aircraft, which have been paying landing fees for many years. Even SMO-based flight schools will have to pay for every landing. A lesson of 10 touch-and-goes in a Cessna 172 will add $109.60 to the student’s bill for airplane rental and instruction. Nearly every aircraft based at SMO will have to pay the landing fee, although light sport airplanes, which weigh less than typical four-seat Cessnas and Pipers, will pay about $5 per landing. After voting to impose the new fees, the city council agreed to consider exempting charitable and emergency flights from the fees before the upcoming deadline.
The new landing-fee schedule takes effect on August 1, raising fees to $5.48 from $2.07 per thousand pounds of “certificated maximum gross landing weight.” (See chart on page XX.) For a Gulfstream IV, the fee climbs to $323.32 from $122.13. A Hawker 800XP owner will pay $120.56, up from $45.54. Every time a Cessna 172 pilot lands the pilot will have to pay $10.96. NetJets, a frequent flier at SMO, had 142 operations in March or 71 takeoffs and landings. If these were all in a G200-sized airplane, the landing fee will climb to $164.40 each from today’s $62.10. The 71 March operations–if all were in a G200–cost NetJets $4,409.10. That number will climb to $11,672.40 after August 1. (NetJets did not respond to AIN’s queries for this article.)
A California flight department that regularly uses SMO “will be affected a great deal,” according to the department manager. The company flies turboprops and light jets into SMO. “I will need to evaluate the actual [cost] once this changes and determine if we will consider [Van Nuys] as the option,” he told AIN. “This is an interesting step in pushing people out.”
Revenue Stream for Airports
Santa Monica is not the only U.S. airport that assesses landing fees on based tenants. The practice is common at airports outside the U.S., of course, and aviation advocates blame high landing, airways and even instrument approach fees for the low level of general aviation activity in Europe and elsewhere.
Airports where both based and transient aircraft pay landing fees include Teterboro in New Jersey and Republic Airport in Farmingdale, N.Y. Teterboro pilots in sub-6,000-pound aircraft pay $17 per takeoff, then fees vary according to mtow. There are no flight schools based at Teterboro. At Republic, the minimum fee for every landing, including each touch-and-go by airport-based flight school aircraft, is $2.50. Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mich., exempts aircraft weighing less than 6,000 pounds, but all heavier based and transient aircraft pay $1.75 per 1,000 pounds. “That is a responsible thing to do,” said Willow Run airport manager Sean Brosnan. “You’ve got to pay your way. Snow removal is awful doggone expensive. It’s fair and it’s equitable that all users share [the costs].”
At SMO, the issue that prompted the city council to vote for the higher landing fees is the cost of running the airport. The city said that it needs the increased fees to cover airport operating expenses, which are about $13 million in the red. Bill Dunn, AOPA’s vice president of airport advocacy, disputes the city’s claims about the airport’s financial status. Dunn met with city staff, the city manager, the director of public works and the airport manager on April 8. “I conveyed to them that their numbers are flawed,” he said. “The airport is not losing money. The documents that they’re providing don’t really show it to be the case either way. We view this latest proposed increase as a way to reduce operations at the airport, and the city has a long and historical record of seeking ways it could do that. They denied it.” The city representatives claimed that the airport is being subsidized from the city’s general fund. Dunn, who has reviewed all the financial data that the city would provide, said, “I’m still not convinced. We’re not done looking at the finances. As an association we’re committed long-term on this, we’re not going down without a fight.”
The EAA pointed out the obvious result of the increased landing fees at SMO: fewer operations and thus lower revenues to pay for the airport. “As municipalities continue to look for new revenue sources, they have to be careful not to destroy already established revenue streams,” a spokesman noted. While this may seem to fit the desires of the anti-airport crowd–to reduce the number of operations–that may be true for piston aircraft owners and pilots who are more sensitive to costs, but it could also result in no reduction in jet operations.
The landing fee increase is “unreasonable and unlawful,” NBAA said, adding that it is “considering legal measures to halt the [plan].”
Noise and Air Pollution Concerns
Before 1981, Santa Monica banned all jet operations, and many homeowners who purchased houses close to the airport never expected that ban to be lifted. However, such a ban discriminates against a type of aircraft, which is not permitted by the FAA, and the ban was lifted after airport proponents challenged it. Since then, jet traffic has grown considerably. In 1990, jets averaged about three movements per day, according to Martin Rubin, president of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (CRAAP). More recent statistics from a Rand study conducted for the city’s Airport Visioning process showed that the recession had a significant effect on airport operations. Jet traffic dropped to 12,414 (34/day) during 2012, from a high of 18,575 (50/day) in 2007. Total operations were 142,859 in 2003, and this number fell to 102,675 last year. A study of typical operations conducted for this report during a two-week period found that 81 percent were “propeller” aircraft, 15 percent jet and 5 percent helicopters. (The report doesn’t clarify whether a turboprop is counted as a propeller or a jet.) Pattern flying accounted for 26 percent of all operations, and 41 percent of all operations were by flight schools.
In addition to noise caused by the jets and repetitive pattern flights, local residents (both in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, which borders the eastern side of SMO) have long expressed concerns about pollution generated by SMO operations. The CRAAP website links to a YouTube video that captures a 1995 takeoff by a loud, fume-spewing JetStar, a type of aircraft that is not representative of the modern jets that currently fly into SMO but that illustrates what residents don’t like about the airport.
More recently, several studies about airport pollution have been done at and around SMO. While the key findings are that particulate matter emitted by turbine engines at SMO does not exceed federal standards, the amount of ultrafine particles is a concern, according to Philip Fine, atmospheric measurements manager at the South Coast Air Quality Management District. “This is an issue at Santa Monica airport,” he said during the Nov. 30, 2011 California Senate Select Committee on Air Quality hearing. “These [ultrafine particles] are currently unregulated, but there’s a growing body of scientific research that suggests that these particles have their own toxicity and may be more toxic than what is currently regulated under what’s known as particulate matter.” Ultrafine particles measure 0.1 microns but aren’t regulated, while fine particles of 10 microns or fewer are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Fine went on to explain “We know from Santa Monica studies, even LAX, that the numbers of ultrafine particles coming out of jets are very, very high. They are very efficient ultrafine particle generators. A typical concentration right now might be 5,000 to 10,000 in a sugar cube-[size volume]. If you’re anywhere near a jet, that can get up to one or five million. There haven’t been many studies on the relative health impacts of ultrafines from jets versus ultrafines from diesel trucks [or] from cars, so this is still kind of unanswered.”
Residents are also concerned about lead emissions from piston aircraft flying into SMO, because piston engines run mostly on 100LL avgas, which uses tetraethyl lead as an anti-detonation compound. SMO does not provide any fueling facilities for the unleaded autogas that is permitted in some aircraft, including many light sport aircraft.
A 2011 Duke University study conducted in North Carolina tried to assess any connection between lead in avgas and blood lead levels in children in six counties. “Our results suggest that children living within 500 meters of an airport at which airplanes use leaded avgas have higher blood lead levels than other children,” the study’s authors concluded.
While scientists say there is no safe blood level of lead for humans, the Duke study didn’t find as much of an effect as anti-SMO proponents might suggest in their complaints about pollution. According to the study, “Based on the geospatial and statistical analysis presented above, lead from avgas may have a small (2.1-4.4 percent) but significant impact on blood lead levels in children who live in proximity to airports where avgas is used.” It also found that, “Our finding that living beyond 1,000 meters of an airport using avgas does not have a significant relationship with blood lead levels is reasonably consistent with previous research suggesting that lead drops to background levels beyond 1,000 meters from an airport.”
At SMO there are many houses near the airport. As the Rand study noted, “The airport was first built in an agricultural field; today, 90 years later, it is surrounded by dense residential neighborhoods on three sides; and its runway ends are less than 300 feet from homes.”
At the April 30 city council meeting, about 100 people stood up to give two-minute comments about SMO, and the meeting lasted about four hours, ending just before midnight. Airport proponents, many of whom live close to the airport, were unanimous in their support. Maintenance shop owner Kim Davidson and flight school owner Joe Justice mentioned the many good jobs that would be lost if the airport closes or leases aren’t extended. Other commenters warned that the city council’s decision would lead to legal actions that would continue to tie up the airport.
“The city council meeting wasn’t held so members could listen to anyone,” said Santa Monica Flyers owner Charlie Thompson. “They had their minds thoroughly made up before the meeting started.”
Rymann Winter, president of Proteus Air Services, another SMO flight school, wrote a letter to the FAA: “These fees are nothing more than a veiled attempt by the city to get around the previous judgments against them that have kept the airport operating. As the fees will inevitably rise each year, the airport will slowly die. All due to the relentlesspressure from the city council, which seems to think a park or residential development would better serve its citizens (numerous polls have indicated the exact opposite–the majority of Santa Monica residents want theairport to stay).”
Charitable flying organization AngelFlight West has had an office at Santa Monica Airport since 1983 and averages about 350 flights per year. “I think the council has its mind made up,” said executive director Alan Dias. “They’re listening to a vocal minority. What’s going to happen is, unfortunately, we’ll see several legal filings, and attorneys will make a lot of money. We’re hoping that AngelFlight will continue to be able to operate. It’s both a benefit to the community and logistically makes sense.”
As to the economic benefits that SMO offers, the Rand study outlined these in its report: 894 airport jobs and 1,487 jobs in Santa Monica, making it a top-10 employer for the city; $275 million annual economic impact to the city; 231 indirect and induced jobs and $53.9 million economic impact in the city of Los Angeles.
At a Venice Neighborhood Council meeting about SMO on March 27, David Goddard, chairman of the SMO airport commission, which has no pilot members, outlined possible futures for SMO. While a 1984 agreement with the FAA expires in 2015, the city of Santa Monica did agree when it took over the airport from the federal government in 1948 to keep the airport open in perpetuity. The 1984 agreement included three key areas, Goddard explained, “the 5,000-foot runway, fuel sales and renting space to aviation tenants. Those three rights clearly expire with that agreement.” But he doesn’t believe that the agreement covers a portion of the 227-acre airport property that wasn’t included in the 1948 transfer. And this means that the city could cut 2,000 feet off SMO’s runway on July 2, 2015, according to Goddard. The result might be a shadow of today’s airport, a 3,000-foot runway with no fuel, no services, no aviation-related businesses.
At that meeting, vocal anti-airport Los Angeles city council member Bill Rosendahl was asked, during a discussion of how Chicago’s mayor Daley illegally destroyed Meigs Field’s runway, “Bill, you’re going to be around to sit on a bulldozer to render that [SMO] runway unusable, aren’t you?”
Rosendahl answered: “Yes, I am.”