Santa Monica – Done Deal. Or Is It?

As we told you last time (Feb 8), the FAA and the City of Santa Monica announced on January 28 they had reached a compromise agreement on what is to happen with Santa Monica Airport (KSMO). As approved in U.S. District Court on February 3, the deal elicited widespread criticism from both pro- and anti-airport groups.

Some residents weren’t happy that the airport will continue to operate for another twelve years, when their desire was to close it immediately or in the very near future.

Aviation interests were also angered, perhaps even to a greater extent than residents, at the stunning reversal by the FAA. Most had anticipated a long, drawn-out legal battle to save the airport, thus the agreement was viewed as a back-room betrayal of the airport and the industry, and one that could have far-reaching implications for other airports whose host cities might harbor similar disdain for them.

On February 13, a group led by the Santa Monica Airport Association, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), and other stakeholders filed a petition asking the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, to review the agreement. NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen said, “Santa Monica’s airport is a vital asset to our aviation system, both locally as well as nationally, and serves as a critical transportation lifeline for the entire Los Angeles basin. NBAA remains committed to aggressively supporting unrestricted business aviation access to SMO, through this petition and other available channels.”

Despite the agreement however, Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer has said the city will continue to use every possible loophole to try to curtail air traffic at the airport.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) indicated it will also seek to participate in the petition by filing an amicus brief to ensure enforcement of the parts of the agreement that obligate the city to retain “reasonable and customary business practices” at the airport. “Essentially, we are going to court to make sure we’ll be able to enforce the agreement, “ said AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead.

AOPA President Mark Baker noted, “Santa Monica Airport is an economic engine for the city, but it also touches people in ways they may not realize. The airport is an enormous asset, and over the next 12 years we will ensure everyone knows what they will be giving up if it goes away.” Baker added, ”Twelve years is a long time. By focusing on educating the community, working with newly elected officials, and ensuring the city lives up to their obligations, AOPA will do everything possible to keep Santa Monica Airport open.

In a very interesting piece for the blog JDA Journal, Sandy Murdock, former FAA Chief Counsel and Deputy Administrator, NBAA Senior Vice President and General Counsel, and JDA Aviation’s legal counsel, compiled a side-by-side analysis of what each side stated in their respective press releases, and it appears there are discrepancies between the texts.

For example, the FAA text states “The agreement requires the city to maintain continuous and stable operation of the airport for 12 years, until December 31, 2028, and after that the City has the right to close the airport.” The City’s version states “Closure of Santa Monica Airport to all aeronautical use forever as of December 31, 2028.”

Another example: FAA states “The city is obligated to enter into leases with private aeronautical service providers to ensure continuity of those services until the runway is shortened and it decides to provide such services on its own; but the City states “(U.)S. Government acknowledgement that City of Santa Monica has the right to establish its own proprietary exclusive fixed base operation (FBO) services.”

An objective reading of the examples above indicates at minimum that the two sides did not really achieve complete accord on those points. In the first instance the FAA’s “continuous and stable operation” are not even mentioned in the City’s version, which can be interpreted as a possible excuse to close SMO prior to December 31, 2028. In the second, the word choice by the FAA indicates that it wants private FBO services, while the city’s language clearly shows its intent to operate its own (proprietary) facility.

Furthermore, the City’s version contains language not found in the FAA text:  a) Airport property released from all deed restrictions, b) consent decree, and c) settles all legal disputes between City and the federal government. These points may reflect the City putting its own spin on the “compromise,” but at best they are misleading.

Without access to the original documents, which no one has yet published or provided, it’s impossible to know which language is correct.

In what we think is a very interesting and perhaps the most telling element of this story, an article by David Ganezer in the Santa Monica Observer throws in a purely political twist: FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who is also the acting Secretary of the Department of Transportation, was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013 and his five-year term ends next year. Ganezer asserts that this was the Democrats’ parting shot at the new Trump administration.

To understand how this can be credible, here are some relevant facts to consider:  1) The White House was not informed of the settlement, which was agreed to at an unusual Saturday meeting of the City Council, one week after Trump was sworn in.

2) Trump’s appointee for Secretary of Transportation was Elaine Chao who happens to be married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She was confirmed and sworn in on January 31, three days after the meeting between the City Council and FAA. Since the FAA is an agency within the DOT, she is now Huerta’s boss. It could be argued that the hasty Saturday meeting was called to push the agreement through before Chao became Secretary, ostensibly because it would not have been approved by the new Secretary.

3) Santa Monica is one of the most liberal communities in the country, where Hillary Clinton held numerous fundraisers, and 88% voted for her in November. On the night of the California primary election on June 7, 2016, Bernie Sanders held a rally in his headquarters at SMO’s Barker Hangar.

So – why would the Trump administration want to reward a liberal bastion with a gift of 227 prime acres, used for 100 years as a historic municipal airport, to turn into luxury condos, a cultural events center, and perhaps even a park?

The answer: he doesn’t. Stay tuned for more.

 

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Contributing Author & Technical Support
Past Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association

Sources:
1. FAA, Santa Monica Reach Deal to Keep Airport Open Until End of 2028. Alyssa J. Miller, AOPA Pilot, January 28, 2017. https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2017/january/28/faa-santa-monica-reach-deal-to-keep-airport-open-until-end-of-2028

2. Aviation Groups Challenge Santa Monica Airport Closure Deal. Jonathan Friedman, Santa Monica Lookout, February 15, 2017. http://www.surfsantamonica.com/ssm_site/the_lookout/news/News-2017/February-2017/02_15_2017_Aviation_Groups_Challenge_Santa_Monica_Airport_Closure_Deal.html

3. NBAA Requests Appeals Court Review of Santa Monica Airport Settlement Agreement. Press Release on NBAA website https://www.nbaa.org/news/pr/2017/20170213-017.php

4. Next Steps In The Fight For Santa Monica. Joe Kildea, AOPA News, February 16, 2017. https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2017/february/16/whats-next-in-the-fight-for-santa-monica

5. The Terms Of The Santa Monica “Compromise” Are Not Clear. Sandy Murdock, JDA Journal, January 30, 2017. http://jdasolutions.aero/blog/faa-santa-monica/

6. Trump Admin Sandbagged on Santa Monica Airport Closure; Will No Doubt Reverse It. David Ganezer, Santa Monica Observer, February 5, 2017. http://www.smobserved.com/story/2017/02/05/news/trump-admin-sandbagged-on-santa-monica-airport-closure;-will-no-doubt-reverse-it/2550.html