Heeding the wishes of constituents who have long advocated for the implementation of local airport runway safety meas- ures, the Santa Monica City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Tuesday, November 27th, that will prohibit certain airplanes from using its municipal airport.
The second reading of the ordinance is scheduled to be at the first council meeting in January.
The vote came a month after Robert Trimborn, acting director of the Santa Monica Airport, proposed an ordinance that would allow the council to ban smaller and faster airplanes from using the municipal airfield.
The ordinance will 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, 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 up to, but not including, 79 feet.
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 speeds of 141 knots or greater, but less than 166 knots, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Cathy Larson, who chairs the airport committee of the Friends of Sunset Park, feels that the ordinance is a step in the right direction toward ensuring the safety of residents who live near the airport, along with pilots and airplane passengers.
“I’m pleased that [the council] went forward and approved the first reading of the ordinance,” she said.
Larson’s organization has been extremely active in lobbying the city government and the FAA for runway safety measures for several years and backed the ordinance that the council approved. Airplanes in categories C and D are the type of aircraft they wanted to see prohibited from the airfields.
“The faster aircraft are what pose the most danger,” said Larson.
Airport officials agree. They feel that the change in the fleet of smaller, faster airplanes that have been using the airport over the last decade has exacerbated the need to create safety enhancements.
Sunset Park, along with other residential neighborhoods, surround the municipal airport, and homeowners there have long feared the possibility of an airplane sliding off a runway into their homes, some of which are in close proximity to the air strips.
“The airport sits on a steep plateau, with hills to the east and west,” Trimborn told the council in his report. No other airport in the country has these unique circumstances. Due to these circumstances, the possibility of overruns by airplanes “are particular- ly dangerous at our airport,” said the airport director.
“That overruns are a risk is indisputable,” he said. “The FAA recognizes the risk in its own regulatory materials.”
Currently, there are no safety devices on the airport’s runways.
Overruns have occurred at airports in Little Rock, Arkansas, Burbank and Santa Barbara, and at Midway Airport in Chicago.
Trimborn showed a slide of a Teterboro, New Jersey, accident, where an airplane was embedded inside a building.
“That’s about 300 feet from the runway,” he pointed out, which is the approximate distance of the runways to neighborhoods that ring the Santa Monica Airport.
Trimborn pointed out that the number of faster aircraft has increased in recent years.
“These aircraft could travel farther into a neighborhood in the event of an overrun,” he said.
The FAA has stated in prior discussions with Santa Monica officials that the safety devices that are in use at several other airports could be effective at Santa Monica Airport. The Engineered Material Arresting System, or EMAS, has saved airplanes from veering off runways, says Ian Gregor, FAA communications manager for the Western-Pacific Region.
“They are an excellent solution when you don’t have enough room at the end of the runway,” Gregor said.
The agency’s officials have suggested installing a 165-foot safety device at the end of each runway at the airport.
“This would provide runway safety benefits while still maintaining access for users,” said Gregor.
Larson said that while there is some evidence that the devices have been effective in some cases, they would not be at Santa Monica Airport, in their current design.
“They are not able to stop airplanes at very fast speeds,” she said.
FAA has instituted a program of installing airport safety areas throughout the United States.
“The Santa Monica Airport does not have runway safety areas,” said Trimborn.
“As the FAA’s last director said, ‘You can’t talk about safety unless you have runway safety areas,'” Trimborn noted.
The FAA, in a letter sent to the council last month, indicated its displeasure at the possibility of an ordinance that would prevent specific aircraft from using Santa Monica’s airfields.
“Let me speak very frankly, ladies and gentlemen,” wrote D. Kirk Shaffer, associate administrator of airports for the FAA. “What you are considering by this proposed ordinance is flatly illegal.”
Shaffer refers to a 1984 agreement between the FAA and Santa Monica. He stated that the ban is not consistent with the agreement, and submits that the only sure method to protect residential neighborhoods from accidents is for the city to offer a program to buy the homeowners’ residences.
“It is the only certain way to remove all risk from harm to persons or property on the ground in those areas,” Shaffer wrote.
Shaffer indicates that the FAA is willing to continue discussions with Santa Monica, but cautions city leaders against passing the ordinance, calling it “ill-considered.”
Mayor Richard Bloom dismissed the possibility of purchasing the homes of residents near the airport as “absurd.”
Trimborn feels that safety should take precedent over any other objections.
“Any minimal inconvenience to those traveling in private jet aircraft or minor impact on commerce would be greatly outweighed by the benefit of protecting the safety of the airport neighbors and the flying public,” Trimborn said at the conclusion of his report.
Councilman Bobby Shriver believes that the passage of the ordinance might not prevent the banned aircraft from using the airport.
“[The ordinance] may not stop the C and D aircraft from using the airport,” Shriver said. Based on the tone of the FAA letter, the councilman feels that the agency will move to stay its enforcement, “and there will be a litigation on that,” Shriver predicted. “I’m sure that they’ll take the position that this would be a very dangerous thing if it isn’t stayed within the 30-day period.”
If the FAA does initiate litigation, “It’s unlikely that these airplanes would stop flying in the short term,” said Shriver, who graduated from Yale Law School.
Bloom, also an attorney, touched on how serious and important this topic is to the city and echoed Shriver’s belief that a federal lawsuit could arise from the passage of the ordinance.
“Here we are at a real crossroads,” he said. “This is not a decision that any one of us takes lightly, and it will likely — almost assuredly — place us into very significant litigation, costly litigation.”
Bloom said that the council’s course was “very clear. There is feeling that we are now moving this in a positive direction.”
Larson thanked the council and the airport staff for what she called a well-researched ordinance.
“I feel that the city carefully researched their position and thoroughly studied all documents that would impact their decision,” she said.
Another member of the Friends of Sunset Park, Brian Bland, commended the council on taking the action to prohibit the use of the airport to designated aircraft, despite the possibility of a federal lawsuit.
“This is an important milestone in alleviating the threat of overruns near our neighborhood,” said Bland. “One of the remarkable things about the council’s vote is that they are willing to go down that road, even though there could be costly legal action.”
One resident who addressed the council echoed Trimborn’s contention that pilots who fly the banned class of airplanes could easily operate aircraft in other two categories.
“People who fly these jets into the airport can downgrade to an A or B aircraft and still get into the airport,” said Jim Donaldson, who took exception to Shaffer’s letter.
Airport officials say that the ordinance would only minimally impact air travel.
“There are only a few aircraft based in Santa Monica which are in the C and D class; approximately six aircraft,” Trimborn told the council.
Seven percent of the airport’s operations involve the banned airplanes. In addition, there are six other municipal airports that can accommodate those who wish to continue flying the prohibited airplanes, according to the staff report.
The airport ordinance will not significantly affect noise from the airport, nor will it ban jets. According to an assessment of noise readings, the elimination of the planes in category C and D would be very minimal, said Trimborn.
“Many jets are in A and B classes,” he explained.
These jets make up approximately 50 percent of the jet air traffic at Santa Monica Airport.