Santa Monica Under the Microscope

Santa Monica Airport (Photo credit Pia Bergqvist, Flying Magazine)

Santa Monica Airport  (Photo credit Pia Bergqvist, Flying Magazine)

The fight over Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) has been on the radar of the aviation industry for decades, and the battle intensified significantly in recent years as tenants and pilots have had to contend with an increasing number of operational hardships imposed by the city. Finally in August the city openly declared its intention to close the airport by the summer of 2018.

In September, the Santa Monica City Council issued eviction notices to the two FBOs on the field, Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers, who were given until October 15 to vacate the airport. However, after the FAA initiated an investigation and subpoenaed the city’s airport policy documents, City Council today extended the eviction date to November 4, one week after Council is due to consider a pending agreement with the FAA.

In a firm warning letter to Santa Monica Mayor Tony Vazquez on 30 September, the FAA’s Kevin Willis, Director of Airport Compliance, reminded him that “the city is required to continue to operate the airport for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination.” Willis also said, “We strongly urge the city council to abide by its federal grant assurance obligations and forbear from taking actions in furtherance of its announced intent to close SMO pending further rulings by the federal courts. The FAA is prepared to pursue all legal remedies at its disposal if city council takes concrete actions to restrict leases or operations without complying with applicable federal law.”

We’re glad to see the FAA asserting its authority because it’s been no secret that Santa Monica wants to close the airport to transform it into, they claim, an open space park in a congested city. However, letters to editors seen by this author indicate that even those sympathetic to closing the airport are skeptical that it would remain open space for very long, because the lure of developers’ tax revenues would be too strong to resist.

The AOPA, NBAA, and Santa Monica Airport Association (representing tenants, owners, and pilots at SMO) have been battling the city for decades over noise and pollution complaints and most recently, its outright hostility to flight operations: just last month, City Council voted to close the airport by July 2018.

For years, the city has been making life difficult for anyone wishing to use the airport, including its long-time tenants, by shortening lease terms, curtailing fuel services, and imposing onerous landing fees as well as severe noise and pollution penalties.

In 2015 the city denied 3-year leases to Atlantic Aviation, American Flyers, Krueger Aviation, and Gunnell Properties. They were all long-term revenue streams for the airport but instead the city offered them month-to-month leases. As a result, Gunnell, Audi, and several law firm tenants, all revenue generators, left the airport.

The situation with Justice Aviation was particularly galling. Previously, landing fees had been charged only to visiting aircraft, but in 2013 the city imposed them on tenants’ aircraft as well. Such fees were a new burden on all tenants, but they hit the flight schools particularly hard because of the accrued fees from numerous daily flights. One of the biggest flight schools in southern California and a tenant for decades at SMO, owner Joe Justice refused to pay the fees. In retaliation the city served notice to Justice to pay the fees or close the business, as well as a 30-day notice to vacate the property. To remain compliant, Justice paid the fees before the deadline but the city remained adamant about the 30-day eviction. At the end of a series of suits and countersuits, Justice agreed to accept $450,000 and vacate the property by June 2016.

Similarly, in October the city tripled the lease rate for the airport’s famous Typhoon restaurant. The rent increase combined with difficult business conditions have made it impossible for the restaurant to continue, and in what some see as a symbolic gesture, has announced it will close its doors for good after the election on Tuesday November 8.

This is a critical battle for the aviation industry, one requiring firm and committed action by the FAA, which we’ve already seen. Closure of SMO could set a precedent with far-reaching consequences, spurring other cities to try the same tactics being among the main concerns of aviation advocates. This situation may be coming to a head in the near future, and we’ll keep you on top of developments.

 

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Staff Writer & Technical Support
Immediate Past Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association

Sources:
1. Santa Monica FBOs Remain Open… For Now. Pia Bergqvist. Flying Magazine, October 20, 2016. http://www.flyingmag.com/santa-monica-fbos-remain-open-for-now
2. Santa Monica FBOs Receive Eviction Notices. Pia Bergqvist. Flying Magazine, September 20, 2016. http://www.flyingmag.com/santa-monica-fbos-receive-eviction-notices

Additional sources for this post can be found in the October 2016 HN eNewsletter here