Congressman Henry Waxman has added an amendment to federal legislation that would direct the Federal Aviation Administration to work with Santa Monica officials to resolve the thorny issues surrounding safety at the city-owned airport.
Waxman, who has represented Santa Monica since 1975, asked for the amendment to the 2009 FAA Reauthorization Act, which would authorize appropriations for the agency for the fiscal years 2009-2012 to improve aviation safety and capacity and to provide stable funding for the national aviation system.
“It is the sense of Congress that the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration should enter into good faith discussions with the City of Santa Monica to achieve runway safety area solutions consistent with FAA design guidelines to address safety concerns at the Santa Monica Airport,” the amendment reads.
Santa Monica Mayor Ken Genser applauded Waxman’s entrance into the ongoing legal battle with the FAA.
“We’re very grateful for all that Rep. Waxman has done,” Genser said.
Waxman requested that Congressman James Oberstar of Minnesota, the chairman of the House transportation and infrastructure committee, add the amendment to the legislation.
“I want to ask Chairman Oberstar to work with me and the FAA to find a solution that is consistent with FAA design guidelines for the Santa Monica Airport and adequately addresses the safety needs of all aircraft categories that use the airport,” the congressman said.
Oberstar accepted the amendment, and agreed that safety is a top priority at an airport.
“Lack of a runway safety area on an airport is a critical gap, a serious gap in the safety features of an airport, and I assure (you) we will invite the Santa Monica Airport Authority, and the Office of Airports of FAA to come in to have a discussion about the safety needs of this airport and funding them within the airport’s master plan into the future,” Oberstar told Waxman.
Waxman’s amendment comes on the heels of two decisions in recent weeks that went against the city government. A state appellate court upheld an earlier verdict by a lower court that prevents Santa Monica airport and city officials from implementing a ban on larger, faster jets that they believe have the potential to overrun the runway. Safety concerns are a top priority for residents of Mar Vista and the Sunset Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, due to their close proximity to the runway, where some homes are as close as 300 feet.
And on May 14th, a hearing officer with the federal agency ruled in favor of the FAA, declaring that Santa Monica city leaders could not prohibit certain aircraft from departing or landing at their municipal airport.
“The FAA has always acted in good faith in all of our dealings with the City of Santa Monica,” Ian Gregor, a spokesman with the FAA, told The Argonaut. “Although we were under no legal obligation to negotiate with Santa Monica, we spent nearly six years trying to come to an agreement with the city.
“We made a number of proposals that addressed the city’s safety concerns, but the city rejected all of those proposals.”
Those proposals include offering to purchase homes near the runway, which have been rejected by many homeowners and the offer of the installation of a safety system that the FAA says is more than adequate but city leaders say is substandard.
The Santa Monica Airport, unlike most commercial and general aviation airfields, does not have safety protection at the end of its runway.
In his speech before the committee, Waxman indicated that he did not believe the FAA’s proposed safety measures to be adequate.
“Some proposed changes could seriously undermine emergency response capabilities at the airport, while others would be insufficient to stop a larger jet from an overrun into the surrounding streets and homes,” he said.
Waxman gave the congressional committee a brief history of the issues surrounding the municipal airport, emphasizing its proximity to the runway and the lack of protections for aircraft and the city’s residents.
“The airport’s single runway is bordered by steep hills, public streets, and densely populated neighborhoods, with homes as close as 250 feet from the runway,” Waxman told the committee. “As traffic has increased, so have concerns that any plane overshooting the runway would be at great risk of landing in the neighborhood.
“For nearly a decade, I have worked with the City of Santa Monica and the Airport Administration to push the FAA to address this serious safety problem,” the congressman continued. “While the FAA has had discussions with the city, its response has at times been marked by delays and unfortunate acts of bad faith. Its proposals have simply fallen short of addressing the safety needs of the airport.”
Albert Olson, a Mar Vista homeowner who lives south of the airport, welcomed the news that Waxman was taking a serious interest in the airport’s safety measures, or lack thereof.
“I think that it came at an excellent time,” Olson said. “I think this bodes for well future negotiations between Santa Monica and the FAA.”
Genser said that the congressman’s amendment could be very helpful politically for Santa Monica.
“There is great value in the statement that was introduced,” said the mayor. “We greatly appreciate (Waxman’s) efforts.”
Both Santa Monica and the FAA can appeal any part of the decision to the FAA’s associate administrator for policy, planning and the environment.
Genser said that the city government will continue to try to get the airport ordinance enforced to protect its constituents.
“The entire City Council is committed to doing whatever it takes to make our airport safer,” he said.