Despite a lengthy presentation by an executive from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding its own latest runway safety proposal, the Santa Monica City Council passed an ordinance March 25th that will prohibit specific aircraft types from using Santa Monica Airport.
The passage was the second reading of an ordinance that was previously approved in November. It will ban Category C and D airplanes from the airport.
The new airport ordinance limits the use of the airport to aircraft that operate safely within the capacity of the airfield’s facilities and are consistent with the standards for an “ARC B-II” airport, which is the classification for Santa Monica.
ARC is the acronym for Airport Reference Code and ARC B-II indicates that the airfield is designed to accommodate aircraft with landing speeds of less than 121 knots and wingspan of less than 79 feet.
Category C aircraft are airplanes that travel at a speed of 121 knots or greater, but less than 141 knots, and aircraft that fall into Category D have speeds of 141 knots or greater, but less than 166 knots, according to the FAA.
Over the last decade, residents who live near the runway have complained about the possibility of accidental overruns that could cause substantial damage if an airplane were to leave the runway and enter one of the nearby neighborhoods. Currently, there is no safety protection against overruns.
“Over the years, more and more faster aircraft from Categories C and D have been using the airport,” said Robert Trimborn, interim director of Santa Monica Airport.
According to airport officials, aircraft operations in these categories have increased from 6,000 to 9,0000 annually.
At the outset, Mayor Herb Katz made it clear that the only matter that the council wanted to hear from the FAA was how to protect the airport runway.
“The subject tonight is the safety issue,” Katz stated. “Not broadening it out to emissions, etc. I want to keep it focused.”
Kirk Schaffer, the FAA associate administrator for airports, addressed the council with his agency’s safety proposals, nearly all of which he had highlighted in a letter to city manager Lamont Ewell last month.
Calling the recommendations that he made that night “a four-pronged integrated solution” that would address the needs of the airport and the surrounding areas, Schaffer sought to convince the council that his agency’s recommendations offered more than sufficient protection to the residents and airport operators.
The agency’s safety proposals included installing a large safety system to guard against overruns and electronically notifying pilots who file a flight plan into or out of the airport. Pilots would have received a copy of the Santa Monica “Fly Neighborly” program, including operations and noise abatement procedures.
The 70-knot safety device, which is called the Engineered Materials Arresting System (EMAS), would have been installed only at the departure end of the Runway 21, which accounts for the vast majority of operations. The recommended safety feature is larger than an original proposal that Schaffer brought to Santa Monica in August, when he suggested a 49-knot safety installation.
According to Trimborn, the runway safety proposals by the FAA are insufficient to protect the runway and the adjacent neighborhoods from potential accidents that may occur.
State and federal elected leaders who represent Santa Monica and nearby cities agree. Last month, Congressman Henry Waxman of Santa Monica and Congresswoman Jane Harman of Venice met with officials from the FAA and Santa Monica to discuss the ongoing runway safety concerns. At that meeting, the agency was asked by Waxman to work with Santa Monica on reworking its position on runway safety, said Trimborn.
Citing FAA statistics, Schaffer said that the number of accidents had declined over several years.
“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 [Santa Monica Airport], for that matter.”
Schaffer said that there was “no justification for putting another [Engineered Materials Arresting System] bed at the end of Runway 3, particularly if it substantially impairs the utility and the operational capabilities of the airport.”
FAA representatives say that if another safety device were installed at the end of Runway 3, over 8,000 aircraft operations would be eliminated.
Schaffer highlighted the safety rate of jet aircraft specifically because of the number of complaints that have been lodged by residents regarding the increasing number of jets at the municipal airport.
He also mentioned that the government was willing to purchase the homes of those who choose to no longer live near the airport.
“It’s a voluntary program,” Schaffer said. “[Homeowners] either take it or leave it, based upon their view of it and what is offered to them.”
In the end, after an exhaustive question and answer period, the FAA executive’s presentation did not sway the council.
Councilmembers and residents dismissed the 70-knot safety measure as inadequate because it would protect only one end of the runway, which lies 300 feet from a residential neighborhood.
“I find it hard to be distracted by the potential loss of payload, when on my mind is the potential loss of life,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown.
Addressing Schaffer, McKeown added, “The difference between us seems to be the balance we feel between safety and other concerns. Your concern is operation of the airport.”
The lack of protection on both ends of the runway troubled Katz.
“You’ve got to do both sides,” he stressed. “The FAA did not appear to put safety first, and that is our primary concern.”
Neighborhood grassroots organizations cheered the ordinance’s passage.
“Sunset Park residents are extremely grateful to the City Council for going ahead and adopting the ordinance,” said Zina Josephs, president of Friends of Sunset Park, a neighborhood that is in close proximity of the runway. “We have been hoping for this since 2002, when the city proposed the Aircraft Conformance Program.”
Added Martin Rubin, “We’re thankful that the City Council unanimously passed this long-overdue ordinance.” Rubin is the executive director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, an advocacy group that represents several neighborhoods near the airport.
Josephs, whose group has made runway safety its top priority, feels that the passage of the ordinance is a good beginning towards improved protection for the communities that ring the airport.
“Our foremost concern is the safety of residents all around Santa Monica Airport. Banning the C and D aircraft, which have wider wing spans than the A and B aircraft, is a good first step in protecting residents from overruns, veer-offs, and other types of accidents,” she said.
Katz agreed. “[Category C and D airplanes] are some of the most dangerous [that fly into the airport],” he said.
Following the approval of the ordinance, the FAA issued to the city an “order to comply” with federal regulations. This is an administrative measure giving Santa Monica officials ten days to respond to the order.
“We are asking why we should not resume our dormant investigation of the city’s alleged grant violations,” said Ian Gregor, communications manager for the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region. “We feel that this ban would violate federal laws in several ways.”
Rubin believes that the FAA does not consider the needs and concerns of residential areas that are in close proximity of the airport.
“The FAA has continually supported the interests of the users of the airport,” he said. “I find it incredulous that the FAA looks at the runway safety areas of airports in a vacuum and that they do not differentiate whether the end of a runway is adjacent to a desert or to a dense urban area.”
Gregor said that the 70 knot-protection bed was more than adequate to cover any safety concerns and suggested that Santa Monica’s recommendations would hamper airport operations.
“The runway safety proposal by Santa Monica would dramatically shorten runway length and would illegally limit runway access,” he said. “By contrast, the FAA’s proposal would have enhanced safety while maintaining airport access.”
Assemblyman Ted Lieu of Torrance applauded the council’s decision.
“I would like to commend Mayor Herb Katz and the Santa Monica City Council for taking action to protect the health and safety of those who live near Santa Monica Airport,” the assemblyman wrote in an e-mail to The Argonaut. “As the Federal Aviation Administration continually turns a blind eye to enforcing strict safety standards, it is comforting to know that local government will step up to the plate to protect residents and our community.
“Additionally, I would like to thank Marty Rubin, of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, and [Los Angeles City] Councilman Bill Rosendahl for their tireless efforts in making the area around the airport as safe as possible. I applaud them for their commitment to protecting the residents who have to breathe such polluted air, day in and day out.”
Lieu has supported efforts by Rosendahl and other local advocacy groups regarding runway safety and especially on reducing pollutants from aircraft that use the airport.
FAA officials have not signaled what their next move will be, although some feel that the order to comply could be the precursor to litigation to stop the implementation of the ordinance.
Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver alluded to that possibility in November when the first reading of the ordinance was approved.
Based on the tone of a letter the FAA submitted last year suggesting that the ordinance could be illegal, the councilman feels that the agency will move to stay its enforcement, “and there will be a litigation on that.”
Katz believes that it is inevitable that a lawsuit is forthcoming.
“I think that’s where they’re headed,” Katz said.
“With regard to legal action resulting from the ordinance, we will support the city in any way we can,” Josephs pledged.
Gregor did not confirm that the government agency would sue the city to stop the ban from becoming law.
“The FAA is keeping all of its options open,” he said.
The airport ordinance is set to take effect later this month.