An appellate court in Pasadena heard arguments from attorneys for the City of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Ad- ministration (FAA) on November 19th regarding the city’s power to prohibit specific aircraft from taking off and landing at the city-owned airport.
Santa Monica officials maintain that the runways at the airport are unprotected and the homeowners on both ends of the runways are vulnerable to airplanes skidding into the nearby neighborhoods, which are within less than 300 feet of the landing areas.
City attorney Marsha Moutrie presented the city government’s case before the three-judge panel, which included arguments as to why the municipal airport has the authority to determine which aircraft should be allowed to use its airport.
“I think the [city] council as the proprietor of the airport has a federal right to protect the neighborhood and to decide what aircraft can use or not use the airport so long as that decision is reasonably based and consistent with constitutional protections; the ‘Congress Clause’ and so on,” Moutrie told the judges. “I think the council exercised a power which it clearly holds and I don’t think that my client should be faulted for having negotiated with the federal government.”
Alisa Klein, an attorney with the Department of Justice who is representing the federal agency, told the jurists that Santa Monica is the only municipality that is seeking to alter federal airport standards in order to craft its own airport policy.
“Santa Monica stands alone in unilaterally making changes on aircraft operations over the FAA’s objections,” Klein argued.
In March, the City Council passed an ordinance that prohibited airplanes from categories C and D, which are larger, faster planes, from using its airfields. These planes, airport officials contend, have the potential to cause the most damage in the event of a runway overrun.
Category C aircraft are classified as airplanes that travel with an approach speed of 121 knots or greater, but less than 141 knots. Category D airplanes have speeds of 141 knots or greater, but less than 166 knots, according to the FAA.
The federal agency filed a cease-and-desist order to enjoin Santa Monica from enforcing the ban on April 24th, the day that the ordinance was slated to go into effect.
On May 16th, U.S. District Judge George H. Wu granted the order, which prohibited the city from enforcing the airport ban. Urged by its constituents to press on with the case for establishing an airport ban, the City Council filed an appeal earlier this summer with the appellate court.
Although other reports have characterized the judges as unwilling to examine the evidence closely that the city presented, Santa Monica deputy city attorney Lance Gams believes that the court was attentive.
“I thought that the judges understood our briefs and our issues, and asked pointed questions of both sides,” Gams told The Argonaut.
Brian Bland, a Sunset Park resident who attended the hearing, felt that the judges were not very open to what the city’s lawyers had to offer.
“The three jurists did not seem favorably inclined to our position,” he said. “The demeanor of the judges seemed hostile and dismissive of the city’s position.”
Residents who spoke at the November 11th City Council meeting urged the council to continue to press forward in court to their efforts to see that the ban is implemented.
“The position of those present at the meeting was that the city should fight on,” Gams acknowledged. “The city certainly feels that we should be looking at [obtaining] an airport ban in court and dealing with mediation that we’re in.”
City officials point to a much-publicized runway accident that occurred September 19th in South Carolina involving former Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker.
The Learjet that Barker was traveling in overshot the runway, killing the pilot, Sarah Lemmon; the copilot, James Bland; Barker’s bodyguard, Charles “Che” Still; and his personal assistant, Chris Baker.
Barker suffered second and third degree burns on his legs and lower body.
Stills’ mother and Barker are suing Bombardier Inc., Clay Lacy Aviation and Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that the Learjet crash was caused by defective parts.
Sunset Park resident Bland said that the South Carolina accident was particularly relevant to the situation at Santa Monica.
“If that’s not an example of why C and D airplanes should be banned, then I don’t know what is,” Bland asserted.
The runways at Santa Monica Airport have no runway protection, unlike other general aviation airports around the country. The FAA told the council in March that it was willing to install protection at the end of the runways called an Engineered Materials Arresting System (EMAS), a 70-knot safety device.
Cathy Larson, a Sunset Park resident who has been active in the fight to bring runway safety devices to the airport, dismisses the notion that the proposed runway protection was more than sufficient.
“All the devices that the FAA has proposed are substandard,” Larson said in an earlier interview.
The airport’s acting director, Robert Trimborn, has also stated that safety proposals by the FAA are insufficient to protect the runway and the adjacent neighborhoods from potential accidents that may occur.
The FAA contends that few accidents have occurred near the Santa Monica Airport in the last several years, and that the runway protection that it has offered would be sufficient to protect airport personnel, airplane passengers and homeowners who reside near the airport.
Kirk Schaffer, the FAA’s associate administrator, appeared before City Council in March to tell it and the packed auditorium that overruns were not as common as some may think.
“Santa Monica Airport is a safe airport and it continues to get safer,” Schaffer told the council. “Overruns are quite rare compared to the number of operations in the United States, around the world, or at this airport, for that matter.”
The FAA has also proposed to purchase residences near the runways, which both the council and the homeowners have flatly rejected.
Bland thought the judges did not take into account the configuration of the airport and the lack of runway safety.
“I think that they ignored the unique circumstances that we have here in Santa Monica,” he said.
Bland also said that he hoped that more assistance could come at the federal level, as the region’s elected representatives have been strongly supportive of an airport ban.
“We’re hopeful Reps. Henry Waxman [of Santa Monica] and Jane Harman [of Venice] will pursue help from Rep. James Obersta [of Minnesota] at the federal level,” he said.
Oberstar is the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Gams said city authorities remained committed to getting the ordinance reinstated, and they are hopeful that the court considers carefully the argument for the ban.
“We’re doing all that we can to promote our case and have the ban on C and D aircraft put into effect,” he said.
The court is expected to rule on the case in March.