Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Councilwoman Janice Hahn are recommending that a change in the departure path at Santa Monica Airport become an official policy of Los Angeles in addition to closing six flight schools at the airport.
The policy motion, which was put forth jointly by Hahn and Rosendahl March 10, reflects concerns from the councilman’s constituents in Mar Vista and Venice who have long complained of jet fumes emanating from the general aviation airfield as well as safety concerns due to the flight path that goes over Penmar Golf Course in Venice.
Both lawmakers contend that changing Santa Monica’s flight path so that it doesn’t intersect with Los Angeles International Airport’s airplane route would reduce delays and idling time at Santa Monica Airport.
Hahn, who is seeking to replace former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) in Congress, weighed in on the ongoing airport controversy for the first time.
“I sat down last week in a West Los Angeles home and listened to residents talk about the toxic fumes that seep into their neighborhoods from the airport,” the councilwoman said. “I heard for myself the jet engines idling on the runway nearby.
“As a longtime advocate for clean air and a healthy environment, I want to do something now.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has not decided on which direction the flight path would take, says FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.
“We’re evaluating whether to proceed with a new Santa Monica Airport departure heading. Preliminary results from a six-month test of the proposed heading showed that assigning it to an average of just eight aircraft a day significantly reduced departure delays at both Santa Monica and LAX,” Gregor explained. “However, our evaluation has taken longer than expected because of the need to analyze the large volume of noise complaints we received from Santa Monica residents during the test period.”
Rosendahl says his Mar Vista and Venice constituents have suffered long enough.
“We can’t sit and wait anymore for the FAA to make this change,” said Rosendahl. “We need to start lobbying Washington, D.C. for a permanent solution to the suffocating jet emissions from Santa Monica Airport.”
Both Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Santa Monica) and Harman have pressed the FAA for greater safety protections at the city-owned airport and to conduct an environmental impact report on any alteration to the flight path.
Rosendahl stepped up his calls to close Santa Monica’s flight schools after a fatal accident last year at the Venice golf course.
On July 1, pilot Robert Davenport was killed when his single-engine Cessna 152 crashed at Penmar. Subsequent to the crash, it was learned that Davenport, an experienced pilot, had been practicing what are known as “touch and go” landings, where a pilot essentially lands on a runway without coming to a full stop and then takes off again.
“The last crash happened over a golf course,” Rosendahl said, “and I’m not going to wait to move on this until the next one happens over another neighborhood in our district.”
Rosendahl, who visited the crash site shortly after the accident, said he decided then that he would press federal transportation officials to close the flight schools.
“When I saw (Davenport’s) remains, I thought two things. The first was that this poor guy had lost his life and the second was this could have been worse if the plane had hit others on the golf course,” the councilman recalled.
“It makes no sense to have training in an urban environment. My ultimate hope is that the flight path can be changed and this airport can eventually be shut down.”
Hahn concurred. “I can’t understand why we would have pilots-in-training performing these maneuvers over densely populated areas,” the councilwoman said. “We should close down those schools and move them to a safer location.”
Joseph Justice, the proprietor of the flight school where Davenport trained, cited the airport’s safety record as evidence that flight instruction is not synonymous with dangerous conditions.
“I think the airport’s record is very good, especially when you count the number of neighbors that have been injured by an airplane in the last 20 years,” he said. “With that safety record, the justification for closing flight schools that teach safety is illogical, at best.”
Bill Koontz, co-chair of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Santa Monica Airport Committee, commended Rosendahl and Hahn’s recommendation.
“I think what Bill and Janice are doing is great for the residents of Mar Vista who have been suffering with excess air pollution and noise coming from the airport,” said Koontz, who is also the community council’s second vice president. “This motion deals with several of the worst aspects of the airport’s operations. By asking the FAA to change some of the outbound traffic to the 250-degree heading over Santa Monica, this would greatly reduce wait times where the planes may be idling for long periods of time essentially spewing exhaust downwind into the North Westdale neighborhood.”
Venice resident Laura Silagi is grateful that her councilman has joined with Hahn to sponsor the motion. “I think it’s terrific that we’re getting official support from the city,” said Silagi, co-chair of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Santa Monica Airport Committee.
Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown dismissed the proposal for a flight path change as campaign posturing by Hahn.
“Suggesting that corporate jets now taking off over a flat golf course instead blast over hills carpeted with homes and schools disregards common-sense safety,” McKeown asserted. “That suggestion has more to do with the boundaries of a congressional district Hahn wants to represent than with any honest attempt to help resolve the issues our region has with the FAA.”
Gregor said it was rash to suggest what the causes of the accident were because the National Transportation Safety Board has yet to ascertain the reasons for the crash.
“The NTSB has not yet determined a probable cause for the July 1 crash,” he said. “It is premature to try to ascribe blame for this crash until the experts responsible for investigating crashes reach their determination.”
Gregor pointed out that Davenport was not a novice and had flown several times before the fatal crash.
“It is important to note the pilot in this crash was an experienced commercial pilot and not a student,” the FAA spokesman said.
Koontz also sees the elimination of flight instruction as a critical part of making the surrounding communities safer.“The closing of the flight schools is an equally important issue. The real problem is the ‘touch and go’ flights where pilots in training circle endlessly over the skies of Venice and Mar Vista,” he said.
Koontz said he understands that the public and some pilots need to be trained but feels it can take place elsewhere.
“I agree that the training of pilots is important, but does it need to happen at Santa Monica Airport?” he asked. “Can the planes take off here and practice their ‘touch and goes’ at a less populated airport nearby? Does the general public know that those little prop planes still use leaded gasoline and every flight over our heads is detrimental to our health?”
Justice said the economic repercussions of a possible flight path change and potential flight school closures would go beyond his business.
“I employ close to 20 people, and other flights schools employ similar numbers of people. If we lose our businesses, airplane mechanics and other employees affiliated with aviation would lose their jobs as well,” he said. “How many people is Mr. Rosendahl planning to put out of business with this (policy recommendation)?”
Gregor challenged the wording of a news bulletin released by Rosendahl and Hahn concerning flights.
“I’m not sure what ‘dangerous maneuvers’ the news release is referring to. All pilots must obey all FAA regulations, including those pertaining to minimum safe altitudes,” he stated. “If anyone has any evidence that any pilot has violated those regulations, they should report their concerns to the FAA.”
Gregor also noted that a touch and go landing is a standard procedure that student and experienced pilots practice safely every day at airports all over the United States “to keep their skills sharp.”
McKeown, arguably the most outspoken Santa Monica lawmaker regarding constituents’ concerns about the general aviation airport, saw some common ground with the Los Angeles proposal on closing the flight academies.
“The other part of (Hahn’s) proposal, closing the flight schools, is something I’m probably going to agree with,” he said. “But Santa Monica, under the 1984 agreement, simply cannot do that until at least 2015, and I’m quite sure Janice knows that,” the councilman added.
McKeown was referring to a settlement reached between the FAA and Santa Monica that governs airport operations.
Gregor said Santa Monica could also run into legal trouble if the flight academies were uprooted because the city has accepted federal funds for the operation of the airport.
“Generally speaking, the operator of an airport that has accepted federal grants could be in violation of its federal grant agreements if it tried to evict a certain type of tenant without just cause,” he said.
Justice said he would take the proposal by the Los Angeles legislators seriously on one condition.
“If Mr. Rosendahl would pay for all of my bills before closing me down, then it’s up for negotiation,” he said.