Battle over Santa Monica Airport’s future revs up

In America, Santa Monica municipal airport is situated right in the heart of the suburbs, with take off and landing routes right over thousands of homes. There are serious questions about the effects of the airport’s operations on public health and quality of life.  In 2015 an operating agreement between the FAA and the City of Santa Monica will expire.The city of contends that it will then have more control over how the airport is used. But the FAA has vowed to battle to keep the airport going. There were around 105.000 take offs and landings in 2010.


Location of Santa Monica airport, within a residential suburb

Battle over Santa Monica Airport’s future revs up

When leases expire in 2015, the city says, it won’t be obligated to operate the facility as an airport. The FAA disagrees, standing with pilots and passengers. Foes cite noise, pollution and plane crashes.

  • Mar Vista resident Virginia Ernst looks skyward as a jet flies over her home on its approach to Santa Monica Airport. Ive totally lost the use of my yard, said Ernst, an area resident for nearly 50 years. Its like Im a prisoner in my home.
Mar Vista resident Virginia Ernst looks skyward as a jet flies over her home… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times)
November 26, 2011|   By Martha Groves (Los Angeles Times)

Does the endgame loom in the decades-long tussle over Santa Monica Airport?

In 2015, all land and building leases at the airport expire, and city officials — and thousands of Westside residents weary of life in the flight path — say the obligation to operate the facility as an airport ends too. Santa Monica has hired consultants to study the 227-acre campus and early next year will begin asking for the public’s input on potential future uses.

The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, asserts that the city must operate the airport in perpetuity under a 1948 “instrument of transfer.” The agency, long a potent adversary on the airport issue, has vowed to stand pat for pilots and passengers.

The dispute could well end up in court. At the least, it is revving up an ongoing battle that has pitted flight-school operators and convenience-loving Westside jet-setters against airport opponents fed up with noise, pollution and plane crashes — most recently in August, when a student pilot in a small plane clipped a tree and plunged into the side of a Santa Monica house. Although many residents embrace the airport for its economic value and its dog park, athletic fields, art galleries and plane-watching opportunities, activists say the risks and disruptions outweigh the benefits.

“A lot of people in the community would really like to see the airport closed,” said Cathy Larson, who lives in Sunset Park at the airport’s western edge. “There are lots of obstacles to achieving that.”

Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Mar Vista, Venice and other neighborhoods surrounding Santa Monica, has dived into the turbulence, citing constituents’ complaints about the aerial meanderings of student pilots in the densely populated area and elevated levels of potentially hazardous particles from jet exhaust and lead from propeller-plane fuel. “The airport doesn’t belong there anymore,” he said. “…There’s no physical buffer between the airport and the lungs of my constituents.”

Santa Monica Airport, established in 1917, is described on a city website as the oldest continuously operating airport in Los Angeles County. After Santa Monica acquired the original 170 acres in 1926, the property became the home of Douglas Aircraft Co., whose DC-3 would introduce average Americans to commercial air travel in the 1930s. At its peak, the company had 44,000 employees, and both Los Angeles and Santa Monica encouraged the building of housing right up to the airport’s perimeter.

Before the United States entered World War II, the federal government leased most of the airport from the city to provide security for Douglas, a major defense contractor. After the war, the federal government returned the improved and expanded property to the city under the “instrument of transfer.”

When jets began using the airport in the 1960s, the city imposed restrictions and, at one point, a total jet ban, which aviation advocates successfully challenged in court in the 1970s. In 1981, the Santa Monica City Council voted to close the airport when legally possible but finally agreed to a 1984 settlement that kept the airport open while imposing strict noise rules.

Amid the booming economy in the early to mid-2000s, the airport saw a dramatic increase in high-powered jets used by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and casino magnate Steve Wynn. The number of jet takeoffs and landings has been on the decline since peaking in 2007 at more than 18,500; still, the number last year was more than triple the number in 1993. The overall number of takeoffs and landings — including single- and twin-engine planes and helicopters — has dropped by nearly 30% in the last decade, to 104,950 last year.

In 2007, the city voted to ban high-performance jets with fast landing speeds, including larger and more powerful Gulfstreams, Bombardier Challengers and Cessna Citations. The FAA invalidated the ban, and the city appealed to federal court, which upheld the FAA’s ruling.

“It really ties in with the 1% vs. the 99% issue,” said Martin Rubin, a Los Angeles air-quality activist who has helped lead the charge against the airport. “The 1% are jet-setting in and out of Santa Monica Airport … and polluting the air for a large number of residents.”

One recent afternoon, Virginia Ernst, whose back door is 337 feet east of the runway end, retreated into her home to avoid the fumes of jets idling before takeoff. “I’ve totally lost the use of my yard,” said Ernst, an area resident for nearly 50 years. “It’s like I’m a prisoner in my home.”

On Wednesday, state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) will hold a hearing on air quality at Santa Monica Airport at the Felicia Mahood Senior Center Community Room in West Los Angeles.

Santa Monica Airport pollution could prompt legislation, Lieu says

December 1, 2011
Lead, ultrafine particles and other aircraft emissions at Santa Monica Airport could pose health risks for residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, scientists said Wednesday evening at a hearing in West Los Angeles.

The studies are “highly disturbing,” said state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Air Quality. Lieu said emissions could be exposing Westside residents, especially children, to potentially dramatic health effects, including lower IQs, asthma and bronchitis.

A standing-room-only crowd of about 120 Westside residents attended the hearing at the Felicia Mahood senior center, where researchers presented results from studies at or near LAX and Santa Monica Airport. The scientists included a medical doctor and researchers from UCLA, as well as representatives of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Westside residents testified about their worries over noise and pollution. Laura Silagi of Venice spoke of hearing the “constant roar and drone of planes.”

Lieu said the findings raised serious questions about the effects of the airport’s operations on public health and quality of life. He added that his policymaking committee would explore whether to put forth legislation to curb possible ill effects.

Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA, said Thursday that the agency had taken steps to limit emissions at the airport by, for example, telling pilots not to start their engines until shortly before takeoff.

He added that no one has yet made any formal emissions-reducing proposals for the agency to evaluate or comment on.

The city of Santa Monica contends that it will have more control over how the airport is used come 2015, when all leases at the property expire. But the FAA has vowed to battle to keep the airport going.

Santa Monica Residents Sick of Their Airport

Some say the air pollution, noise and danger should end

By Gordon Tokumatsu and Bill French

Thursday, Dec 1, 2011   (NBC Southern California)

John Wilson’s latest “wakeup call” about Santa Monica Airport came last August. His childhood home was just a few dozen yards from the scene of a plane crash. It’s a neighborhood located right under the noisy flight path.

The images were seen around the world. A student pilot was pulled alive from the wreckage after his plane crashed into a wall, narrowly missing a home that belongs to one of Wilson’s neighbors.

“If it had been a jet, I think it would have been a whole block taken out,” said Wilson.

It’s that concern coupled with pollution, noise and the growing urban cluster nearby that have left a vocal number of residents pushing for a major change.

The critics believe 2015 will be their chance to bring about a big change. That year, an operating agreement between the FAA and the City of Santa Monica will expire.

Wilson and others say it might be time for the place to shut down, for good.

“I’m thinking entirely,” says Wilson. “Yeah. It’s just a little bit too close.”

Joseph Justice, who operates ”Justice Aviation” at Santa Monica Airport, has a unique perspective.

“I can understand that,” said Justice. “I live two blocks away from LAX.”

Justice’s flight school produced the young man whose plane crashed last August. He says crashes like that one are rare.

“When was the last time a student pilot crashed off this airport?” asks Justice. “Nobody remembers.”

As for air pollution and noise, he points out that Santa Monica, Mar Vista, Venice and other communities nearby are already noisy and polluted from freeways and congestion.

“It was an airport when they came in,” said Justice. “The deed said it was an airport. And I’m sure many of them are very upset.”

He says they’re upset because realtors may have convinced some of them that the airport will inevitably be shut down. He says that’s simply not true.

“If the FAA didn’t want it to be an airport, of course, I doubt it would still be here,” he says.