The Los Angeles City Council waded into a long-simmering debate over what two of its members consider to be serious airport safety concerns by passing a resolution April 19 asking for the closure of six flight schools that operate at the Santa Monica Airport.
The resolution, which was sponsored by Councilman Bill Rosendahl and his council colleague Janice Hahn, calls for federal intervention in closing flight academies in Santa Monica as well as altering the existing flight path from the airport over Venice.
“I’m very gratified that my colleagues stood with me on this very critical issue,” Rosendahl told The Argonaut. “This is the beginning of Los Angeles strongly expressing our views about the constant bombardment of toxic fumes from jets at Santa Monica Airport.”
The resolution was based on a policy motion submitted by Rosendahl and Hahn March 10.
Rosendahl has pushed for a change in the current flight path over Venice since last summer following an accident in Venice that claimed the life of a pilot.
On July 1, pilot Robert Davenport was killed when his single-engine Cessna 152 crashed at Penmar Golf Course. 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.
Ian Gregor, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration, said any attempt to change the existence of flight schools could run into legal hurdles.
“Generally speaking, the operator of an airport that has accepted federal airport improvement grants could be in violation of its federal grant agreements if it tried to evict a certain type of tenant without just cause,” Gregor told The Argonaut. “Santa Monica Airport has accepted federal airport improvement program grants.”
Gregor was referring to a settlement reached between the FAA and Santa Monica in 1984 that governs airport operations.
Santa Monica Councilman Kevin McKeown also took note of Santa Monica’s contract with the FAA. “The legally binding agreement with the FAA that expires in 2015 protects the existing flight schools,” McKeown reiterated.
Gregor said the federal government has an established safety framework to lessen the possibilities of an accident.
“We have standard procedures in place to keep Santa Monica jet departures and Los Angeles International Airport departures safely separated from one another,” he said. “The close proximity of the two airports is by no means a safety issue.
“Jets departing from each airport are in two-way communications with air traffic controllers, and controllers are tracking the jets by radar.”
Susan Hartley, a Santa Monica resident who lives near the airport, supports the Los Angeles resolution. “I’m all for it,” said Hartley, a former Santa Monica airport commissioner. “The real question is how can Santa Monica, in good conscience, expect airplanes to fly over Los Angeles when they are coming from Santa Monica’s airport?”
Joseph Justice, the proprietor of Justice Aviation, said the airport’s safety record is exemplary, especially for flight schools, and teaching safety is a central tenet of flight instruction.
“The purpose of flight schools is to make flights around the airport safer,” he noted. “This was an unusual decision that I feel is unjustified.”
Davenport was practicing his landings at Justice’s school.
Santa Monica Airport Manager Robert Trimborn says the airfield has several restrictions on the various types of aircraft landings, including the touch and go procedure.
“We have restrictions on ‘touch and go’ and ‘stop and go’ on weekends, holidays and weekdays, from one hour after sunset to 7 a.m. of the following morning,” Trimborn explained in an earlier interview. “Touch and goes are used in training to learn to judge the distance when a pilot is descending on a runway, and one of the most critical points in instruction in aviation is landing.”
According to the website of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, touch-and-go practice provides advanced students and certificated pilots a technique for an emergency go-around should he or she detect a runway hazard after touching down, such as an animal or another airplane on the runway.
In addition, the association’s website states these landings can also reduce training time and student costs.
The Venice Neighborhood Council approved a resolution last July 20 to send a letter to lawmakers asking to support eliminating the landing maneuver.
“People are afraid because many of them live under the flight path,” Laura Silagi, the chair of the local council’s airport committee, said prior to the board meeting. “If you didn’t have (‘touch and go’ maneuvers) you would have a lot (fewer) flights over Venice.”
Gregor said flight schools operate safely every day at airports all over the region and the country, including in cities like Hawthorne, Torrance, Long Beach, Compton, Whiteman, El Monte, Brackett Field and Santa Monica.
He also stated that attempts to link Davenport’s fatal accident to the school had no basis in fact.
“Nobody has offered one bit of evidence suggesting that Santa Monica flight school operations are anything but safe,” he asserted. “While certain people have tried to link the July 2010 accident to flight school operations, the fact is the pilot in that crash was an experienced commercial pilot and not a student,” Gregor noted.
The Argonaut was the first publication to point out that Davenport was not a student pilot at Justice Aviation.
Gregor said it was rash to draw any conclusions about what caused the accident 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 that crash. It is premature to try to ascribe blame for this crash until the experts responsible for investigating crashes reach their determination,” he said.
McKeown said his city has been very attentive to some segments of the public’s concern about flight schools.
“Santa Monica’s already denied permits for two new flight schools,” McKeown noted.
The Santa Monica councilman believes the resolution is driven by political aspirations. Hahn is one of 16 candidates seeking to replace former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) in a special election for the 36th Congressional District.
“Congressional campaign political posturing isn’t really helpful,” he said. “Santa Monica continues to do the heavy lifting, suing over jets too fast for the short runway, compiling hard environmental evidence about air pollution, and convening a public process so our communities can pull together in negotiating with the FAA for real changesin 2015.”
This is the second time McKeown has suggested that the resolution had a political nature. In March, he said the council motion to change the fight path “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.”
Rosendahl did not deny that there were political overtones involved. “You better believe it’s political,” the councilman countered. “All of this is about politics, and Santa Monica needs to appreciate that this is a toxic hazard that my constituents have been forced to breathe for years.”
Justice agrees with McKeown’s assertion. “I am rather certain that the people who presented information to the Los Angeles City Council presented it in a misleading fashion,” he claimed. “It seems to me that the actions by the council seem to be entirely political and unjustified.”
Like Rosendahl, Hartley advocates closing the airport after the agreement with the FAA expires. “It’s time that we shut it down,” she said.
Justice said no one with a background in aviation gives the resolution much credence.
“I don’t know anyone who has real experience in aviation that takes this as a threat, except for the possibility of those who are misinformed about the airport,” the flight academy owner said.
Rosendahl, who supports Hahn in her congressional bid, says having her in Washington, D.C. would help turn the resolution into federal action.
“If she gets elected, which is my hope, she will then be in a position from a policy standpoint to effect change,” he said.
Gregor said the decision on whether or not to change the flight path from Los Angeles back to Santa Monica has been delayed due to the FAA’s need to analyze the large volume of noise complaints received from Santa Monica residents during the test period.
Rosendahl singled out councilwomen Hahn and Jan Perry as well as councilmen Paul Koretz and Eric Garcetti for their support for his resolution.
The resolution will now go to Washington as part of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s legislative packet.
A representative of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce did not return calls for comment.