Two influential Washington, D.C. lawmakers are wading into the debate surrounding airport safety at Santa Monica Airport following an airplane crash near the airport’s unprotected runway on August 2nd.
Congressmembers Jane Harman and Henry Waxman, whose districts include the neighborhoods within close proximity to the airport, wrote letters to J. Randolph Babbit, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, urging him to examine the lack of safety during the agency’s investigation of the plane crash.
William Davenport of Los Angeles was the pilot of the single-engine Long-EZ propeller plane that crashed shortly after taking off from the municipal general aviation airport, alarming residents in Mar Vista and Santa Monica who live near the runway, which lies less than 300 feet from a residential neighborhood and has no safety buffer to halt planes that may overshoot the airport’s runway. No one except Davenport was injured, and the plane was destroyed.
“The community is extremely fortunate that this accident was not more severe,” the congresswoman wrote on August 5th. “As you may know, approximately 75 percent of the airport is surrounded by residences, some of which are less that 300 feet from the airport perimeter, and many of my constituents live in those neighborhoods.
“This near tragedy puts an exclamation point on concerns about safety that residents and I have expressed for many years.”
The Santa Monica City Council approved an ordinance in March last year that would prohibit aircraft from categories C and D, considered to be the largest and fastest jets that use the airport, from its runway. City officials argue that these jets have the highest probability of overshooting the runway and crashing into nearby residences due to their sizes and speed.
The FAA challenged the city statute and an appeals court struck the ban down last year. City officials are challenging the ruling in federal court.
To date, no airplanes from either categories C nor D have been involved in accidents at the municipal airfield, although there have been runway overruns at other airports.
“As you investigate the specific causes of (the August 2nd) crash, I urge you to do so in the context of overall safety issues at the Santa Monica Airport and with an eye on ensuring residents and airport personnel are well protected from future and potentially more devastating incidents,” Harman stated in her letter.
Harman’s letter was also sent to Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The accident was viewed by many of the advocates for airport perimeter safety measures as a prime example of the danger that homeowners who live at the edge of the runway face. Although the airplane was not a jet that the ordinance seeks to prohibit, city officials and residents say that the accident illuminates the necessity to install safety protection at the end of the runway.
Waxman, who has been very active in engaging the FAA on the lack of runaway safety at the airport and has written several letters to his congressional colleagues as well, co-authored a letter with Harman on August 5th, detailing the history of the airport and its ongoing legal battle with the FAA over the city attempt to implement a ban on large jets.
In the joint letter, the legislators reference an earlier request by Waxman to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to hold meetings between the FAA and Santa Monica officials and to enter into “good faith discussion” regarding airport safety solutions and the inclusion of an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009.
“I want to ask Chairman (James) 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 wrote in May.
The lawmakers also criticize the federal agency for not taking Santa Monica’s runway safety concerns with greater urgency.
“While the FAA has had discussions with the city, the agency’s response has been marked by delay and ambiguity,” they wrote. “On one occasion, agency staff in the FAA’s Office of Airport Safety Standards withdrew a proposal hours before a forum organized by Santa Monica officials to receive public comments.
“Most recently, the FAA proposed changes that could seriously undermine the emergency response capability at the airport and may be insufficient to stop a larger jet from an overrun into the surrounding streets and homes.”
Ian Gregor, an FAA spokes-man, noted that his agency has offered to install safety measures at the airport but was rebuffed by the city.
“We share the congressmembers’ desires for the safest possible operations at Santa Monica Airport,” Gregor told The Argonaut. “The FAA spent nearly six years working to address the city’s safety concerns. We made a number of proposals that would enhance the airport’s runway safety areas, but the city rejected all of those proposals.
“We remain ready to implement any of those proposals at the city’s request.”
Santa Monica leaders, residents and airport officials have stated that the safety device that the FAA has offered, called an EMAS (Engineered Materials Arresting System) is substandard and would not prevent a jet from overrunning the runway.
Susan Hartley, chair of the city’s Airport Commission, said that she is delighted to hear that her congressional representatives were encouraging the FAA to meet again with Santa Monica officials and to consider providing runway safety measures.
“The more lawmakers that get involved the better,” said Hartley, who lives a few blocks from the end of the runway.
Waxman and Harman implored Babbit and Hersman to take a new look at upgrading runway safety standards at the city-owned airport.
“We urge you to bring a fresh perspective to this issue and fulfill that call to action,” they wrote. “Our constituents, crews and passengers who use the Santa Monica Airport deserve to have the confidence that airport operations meet FAA safety guidelines and go beyond the barest minimum enhancements previously proposed by the FAA.”
Harman feels that by confronting the lack of runway protection, the FAA could also tackle another problem that residents who live near the airport have complained about for years.
“For the large number of residents who live near or use Santa Monica Airport, the recent accident could have had much more devastating consequences,” the congresswoman told The Argonaut. “Addressing the safety concerns that constituents and their elected leaders have long called for could also have the added benefit of reducing noise and aircraft emissions.”
Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Ivan Campbell said that while the federal lawmakers’ support is welcome, the city’s lawyers will focus on the legalities of the court case.
“(The letters) are certainly consistent with the city’s goal of making the airport safer,” he said.
Hartley said that the possibility of another accident is imminent without runway safety installation or the airport ordinance in place.
“It’s a matter of time before another crash happens,” she predicted. “There are so many flight path deviations by pilots that it broadens the potential for accidents.”