The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is testing a new departure path this month for aircraft at Santa Monica Airport that federal officials say could reduce the number of delays at the general aviation airport and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Under this procedure that began December 1st, some departures will make a right turn soon after takeoff and fly at a 250-degree heading, or angle of an aircraft to an object, instead of the usual 210-degree heading, according to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

“This will keep departures from the Santa Monica Airport on a parallel path with departures from Los Angeles International Airport,” Gregor said. “They will maintain the required three-mile distance from LAX departures at all times, eliminating the need to hold departures at either airport.”

The two airports’ departure paths eventually converge out over the ocean and as a result, airplanes leaving Santa Monica must be sequenced with airplanes exiting LAX to provide safe separation and spacing between aircraft, the FAA says.

“Because of the sequencing requirements, departure delays occur at both airports. Behind every Santa Monica Airport jet or turboprop departure, the next subsequent LAX departure must wait two to three minutes to depart,” Gregor added.

Santa Monica Airport Director Robert Trimborn presented a report at last month’s Airport Commission meeting about the new heading, where he stated that the FAA procedure would apply to piston-powered instrument flight rules (IFR) departures only.

“The test and proposed flight track change will not affect jet aircraft operations at Santa Monica Airport,” the director told the commission.

Wait time at LAX can be as long as seven to nine minutes in some cases because piston aircraft fly slower than jets and turboprops, Gregor said. Frequently, there are several aircraft waiting to fly out of LAX and the number of aircraft waiting for departure multiplies the delay time.

Susan Hartley, a former Santa Monica Airport commissioner, calls the FAA test “a shell game” that will not bring relief to any of the homeowners who reside near the airfield.

“What they are doing is a de facto enlargement of the airport,” Hartley, who lives west of the city-owned airport, asserted.

In addition to the proximity of the airport and the need to make sure that the IFR departures do not conflict with each other, the alignment of the runways presents another problem, the report states. The runways at LAX are aligned at a heading of 250 degrees, while the Santa Monica-owned airfield is aligned at 210, a 40-degree variance of a convergence angle between the two centerlines of the runways.

“This necessitates very specific and precise coordination between the facilities,” Trimborn said.

Delays also result in increased aircraft exhaust emissions, increased noise and higher operating costs, according to the FAA.

Trimborn did not directly address Hartley’s assertion, but said that the test was not considered an expansion of the airport.

“It is just a change in separation protocol in the flight path at the airport,” he said.

City Councilman Kevin McKeown took the federal agency to task for not sending a representative to make a presentation at the commission meeting, which it had originally indicated that it would, and for not taking public input on the new procedure.

“The FAA was supposed to present and explain their flight path changes at a meeting of Santa Monica’s Airport Commission, but cancelled that courtesy and proceeded unilaterally,” McKeown said. “The new path takes planes over more homes at a lower altitude, and we’re concerned about safety.”

Trimborn explained in his report that the FAA changed its position on a presentation and public outreach program at the commission meeting to respond to certain concerns regarding any potential negative impacts, and decided to move forward with the procedure.

The airport director said that while he and his staff were disappointed with the FAA’s decision not to appear before the commission, they would continue to work with the federal agency and be aware of any technical problems or changes related to the test.

During the test, the FAA plans to gather data on delays and will study noise complaints made to the airport.

“We’ll analyze the data at the end of the test,” Gregor said. “The results will determine what eventual course of action we’ll pursue, and what level of environmental review and community involvement is required.”

The FAA said in a statement, “This test is an attempt on the FAA’s part to find a proper balance between system efficiency and community sensitivity. The FAA is sensitive to the needs of the communities we serve, as well as the needs of pilots and airlines.”

Hartley says that the most beneficial solution would be one that the FAA has resisted.

“The best thing that could happen would be to decrease the amount of traffic coming into our airport,” she said.

McKeown, who has been one of the council’s most outspoken advocates of lessening jet traffic at the airport, feels that the amount of jet activity and volume at the city airfield is the key to having better safety and mitigating some environmental concerns.

“Santa Monica continues to believe the solution is for the FAA to operate the Santa Monica Airport in keeping with their own safety standards, which would disallow the faster jets, and we are currently in court on that issue,” the councilman said.

McKeown was referring to a lawsuit that the FAA filed against the city government after the council approved a ban on certain types of jets from the airport in March 2008. The ordinance, which was never enacted, would have prohibited larger, faster jets from Categories C and D from landing at or taking off from the airport.

The federal agency won an injunction against the city and that position has been upheld by the FAA administrator and in two lower court decisions.

Santa Monica city officials have appealed the verdicts and the case is now being considered in federal court.

Jet and turboprop aircraft will not be assigned this new heading.

The test is expected to last approximately 180 days.

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