Uncertain Future for Santa Monica Municipal Airport
Could we possibly see the closure of the busiest single-runway GA airport in the U.S.?
The City of Santa Monica – meaning the city council, residents, and anti-airport activists want the city to be allowed to redevelop the 227 acres (92 ha) of land that currently serves as the Santa Monica Municipal Airport, a general aviation, public-use facility. Of course, that means the airport, an important reliever facility for Los Angeles International Airport (KLAX/LAX), would have to shutter its doors permanently.
There have been six attempts over the past 30-plus years to close the Santa Monica Municipal Airport, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and multiple district court rulings have succeeded in fending off its closure. The FAA contends that the city agreed to operate the airport in perpetuity back in the 1948 Instrument of Transfer agreement in exchange for federally funded improvements to the airport’s facilities. The city, however, disputes this interpretation by the FAA most vehemently.
Until recently, the city had been operating under the understanding that it would be released from its obligation to oversee airport operations in July 2015. But based on numerous assessments of agreements and increases in grant monies over the years, the FAA has ruled that the date has been pushed out to 2023. Naturally, this only stokes the fiery arguments further.
An aerial view of the airport clearly shows extensive residential developments encroaching on all sides of the airport property. There are numerous and ongoing complaints about the noise, which are mostly attributed to jet engines, and there’s the constant smell of burned jet fuel that lingers in the air of the surrounding areas.
Yet, proponents of the airport contend that the noise is well managed and the pollution generated is but a fraction of the smog and pollution created by the Interstate 10 and Interstate 405 Interchange, a mere one mile (1.6 km) from the airport. This interchange accommodates over one million cars and trucks each day. Moreover, they say that the airport produces one-tenth of one percent of the total pollution produced by the city of Santa Monica each year.
As for the noise, the airport currently operates under the most restrictive noise limits in the country. With noise abatement procedures in place since the 1980s and a strict operational curfew enforced from 23:00 to 07:00 daily, the regulations definitely control the number and size of aircraft that can use the facility. Airport proponents, therefore, declare that the noise really isn’t as bad as the nearby residents claim.
Meanwhile, the debate rages on. The city continues to cling to the hope that it will regain control of all airport property and can decide whether to eliminate aviation-related businesses and shorten the runway to preclude jets from using the facility or close the facility outright and reclaim the land for use by the residents of Santa Monica. That said, the city has already designated that the non-aviation land around the airport should be converted into a park and recreational facilities, eliminating spaces for hundreds of tie-downs.
At present, some airport tenants have been given new three-year leases based on market rates but those tenants are on property covered by federal agreements that preserve the continued usage until such time the U.S. government changes or terminates the agreements. Other tenants on the western portion of the airport have not been as lucky – allowed to rent month-by-month at market rates as well.
Without a doubt, one point is clear: The community of Santa Monica has very distinct viewpoints on how the airport land should be used to benefit the residents. There is already a city park with three remarkable gardens, plans for an additional park, numerous office spaces, art studios, a flight museum, and various event venues in which the residents can use and enjoy.
The Santa Monica Airport Authority (SMAA) is passionately trying to secure the future of the airport and its continued service as a general aviation reliever airport for Los Angeles, as is the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), which has worked tirelessly alongside aviation businesses located on the airport grounds.
According to SMAA, the airport contributes 175 businesses to the local economy and employs 1,500 people. 269 aircraft are based there, and it’s an integral part of the area’s disaster relief program. The facility is touted as a vital economic and security asset for Los Angeles County. The Santa Monica Office of Emergency Management stated in a recent report that the airport performs an indispensable role in emergency response, relief and recovery efforts. The city’s All Hazards Mitigation Plan refers to the facility as critical and essential.
A Closer Look at This Remarkable Airport
• This 97-year-old airport was formerly a barley field atop a mesa southwest of the City of Santa Monica.
• Biplanes began using the field as an informal airstrip as early as 1917.
• In 1921, Donald Douglas used the airstrip to test the military planes that he manufactured in an old silent movie studio in Santa Monica.
• In 1923, the airstrip was officially named Clover Field, after a local native, Greayer “Grubby” Clover, who was a World War I fighter pilot that was killed in action over France.
• In 1924, the Douglas World Cruiser was the first biplane to circumnavigate the world.
• Howard Hughes purportedly learned to fly there.
• In 1929, Amelia Earhart participated in the Women’s Air Derby, taking off from Santa Monica and landing in Cleveland, Ohio.
• The Douglas Aircraft Company built DC-3s in Santa Monica during the Great Depression, which insulated the city’s residents to a degree from financial hardships.
• During World War II, Douglas built enough military aircraft to employ 40,000 workers over three round-the-clock shifts, seven days a week during the height of the war
• Actor Harrison Ford crashed his vintage airplane nearby in March 2015.
• At present, 165,000 landings and takeoffs happen annually at Santa Monica, and 14,000 of those operations are business jets.
Regardless of which side of the debate you come down on, you must admit that the Santa Monica Municipal Airport has an illustrious past and has played an important role in U.S. aviation for many generations.
Stay tuned to UAS Blog for the latest updates on this story.