In what could be the first in a series of major steps toward improved runway safety at Santa Monica Airport, the Santa Monica City Council will begin to consider an ordinance that would place stricter limits on faster airplanes that take off and land at the airport.
Over the last decade, the airport has begun allowing what are known as Category C and D aircraft to depart from and land in Santa Monica, which neighborhood activists and more recently Santa Monica airport personnel feel could be dangerous to the surrounding communities. The speed that many of these jets reach for takeoffs, coupled with the fact that there are no barriers at the end of the runways to prevent an airplane from crashing into nearby neighborhoods, makes the current situation precarious for those who live near the runways, they say.
“We absolutely see this as a very good first step” toward improved runway safety, said Cathy Larson, a member of the Friends of Sunset Park, a city-recognized grass-roots organization that has been active in the battle to bring necessary safety enhancements to the airport.
“We see the outcome [of the recommended ordinance] as a critical plus.”
Category C aircraft are planes that travel at a speed of 121 knots or greater, but less than 141 knots, and planes that fall into Category D have speeds141 knots or greater, but less than 166 knots, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
At the City Council meeting Tuesday, October 8th, Robert Trimborn, acting director of Santa Monica Airport, proposed having city staff draft an ordinance that would limit 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. ARC is the acronym for Airport Reference Code, and ARC B-II indicates that the airfield is designed to accommodate aircraft with approach to landing speeds of less than 121 knots and wingspan up to, but not including, 79 feet.
“This is something that we have been working on for a long time,” Trimborn said. “The council has asked us to look at options relating to what an ordinance like this should look like.”
“The content of the (proposed) ordinance is already set, so now it’s a matter of what language is used,” said Larson.
“I would like the city ordinance to bring Santa Monica Airport into compliance with federal safety standards by eliminating the larger, faster Category C and D aircraft from the fleet mix,” said Zina Josephs, president of the Friends of Sunset Park. “The airport was never designed for those planes, and it’s not safe for them to be flying in and out of an airport which has homes 300 feet from the ends of the runway.”
According to Larson, over 50 percent of the air traffic at Santa Monica Airport consist of Category C and D airplanes.
Communities that surround Santa Monica are also concerned about greater protection at the runways. On Tuesday, October 9th, the Mar Vista Community Council approved a policy motion supporting the recommended municipal statute. Rob Kadota, the Mar Vista council chair, applauded Santa Monica’s efforts to improve safety of the landing areas.
“It’s wonderful,” Kadota said. “I’m pleased that Santa Monica shares our concerns with the airport.
“It’s really great to have them as an ally.”
Colin Hatton, a board member on the Mar Vista council, recalled watching an airplane crash two blocks from his home about four years ago.
“When you see the number of large jets flying in and out of Santa Monica Airport, you think that it’s only a matter of time that it could happen again,” said Hatton.
Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman, said that his agency has not seen the proposed law that would govern airport usage and has no position on its merits.
“Once we have seen a copy of the ordinance, we’ll be in a better position to analyze it in detail and then we’ll comment on it,” Gregor said.
In addition to the recommended statute regulating the usage of certain aircraft, concerns continue regarding what many feel are unsafe conditions on the airport’s runways due to the lack of safety barriers.
“A high-performance plane overrunning the runway would likely careen into the neighborhood below,” reads the staff report on the proposed ordinance.
Trimborn confirmed this during an interview after the council meeting.
“If there were an incident of a plane that overran the runway, there is a 90 degree drop off onto one of the service roads, because neither the eastern or western end of the runways have any barriers,” he explained.
Residential homes stand at the end of both runways, where an airplane would have an unrestricted path in the case of a runway incursion. The homes at both ends are approximately 300 feet from the runways, according to the staff report.
“These two circumstances — the lack of safety areas and the proximity of the homes at the runway ends — make the possibility of an overrun particularly dangerous,” the report reads.
The FAA has acknowledged that runway safety is a critical matter and has engaged in a nationwide campaign to improve airport landing areas. The agency takes the position that its Engineered Material Arresting Systems, or EMAS, can provide sufficient buffer zones at the Santa Monica Airport and have proposed installing them at both ends of the runways.
The agency recommended building two 155-foot safety areas on the runways. In August, the City Council rejected this measure as grossly inadequate, due in part to the fact that Santa Monica Airport officials report that airplanes in Category C and D require 1,000 feet of pavement in order to safely prevent a runway incursion.
The Runway Safety Area, as described in FFA Advisory Circular 150/5300-13, is a “surface surrounding the runway prepared or suitable for reducing the risk of damage to airplanes in the event of an undershoot, overshoot, or excursion from the runway.”
Despite the City Council’s objections, the FAA remains committed to the EMAS runway mitigation.
“We have made our position clear on how we would like to mitigate runway safety at Santa Monica Airport),” said Gregor, the agency’s spokesman.
Larson believes that EMAS can be a functional safety device for a particular type of aircraft that travel at certain speeds, but is ineffective, based on the configuration of the system that the FAA is recommending for the Santa Monica Airport.
“For what it’s designed for, to capture planes in case of runway overruns, [EMAS] seems to be effective,” she conceded. “But it has to be constructed for the airplanes that are landing at Santa Monica Airport, and the configuration that the FAA has proposed is very substandard.”
“What happens if an airplane veers off to the side of the runway?” Larson asked. “I’m concerned about other types of accidents that could happen on the runways, and the current EMAS configuration that the FAA proposed is not adequate.”
Larson indicated that she would be open to more effective runway safety mitigation, “provided that it is not used as a bargaining chip to bring back larger, faster aircraft.”
Trimborn believes that Santa Monica could be in the process of breaking new ground with the proposed city statute.
“This type of an ordinance has never been done at an airport before,” he said. “We have to seriously look at what we can do to address this issue.
“As a city, we are cognizant of the safety concerns of the people on the ground and the people who are flyingÖ. Both groups are equally important.”
Gregor said that his agency is willing to continue to work with Santa Monica to resolve the dilemma of making the airport and its landing areas safer for passengers, airport employees, pilots and residents of Santa Monica.
“The lines of communication remain open between the city and the FAA,” he said.
At Argonaut press time, Councilman Ken Genser, the City Council liaison to the Airport Commission, had not returned phone calls for comment.