At its meeting Tuesday, February 27th, the Santa Monica City Council received an update on proposed runway safety enhancements for Santa Monica Airport, which have remained largely unchanged since the 1940s, says acting airport director Robert Trimborn.
This follows four years of discussion between the City of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about how to make the Santa Monica Airport safer.
The airport’s runway is about 5,000 feet long and jet traffic has increased by 1,500 percent since 1983, according to Santa Monica Airport records.
The safety enhancements envisioned in the current plan include a 300-foot runway safety area with a 250-foot “engineered materials arresting system” (EMAS) bed on the west end of the runway and a 600-foot runway safety area on the east end of the runway.
An engineered materials arresting system bed is a pad at the end of a runway built of a lightweight, crushable concrete that safely absorbs the energy of an aircraft which has overrun a runway, bringing it to a stop.
The Santa Monica Airport Commission is scheduled to review the safety enhancement proposals at its meeting Monday, March 26th, and City Council will continue its consideration after that.
Trimborn said it’s important to note that the runway area safety enhancements are conceptual and represent a proposal gleaned from ongoing negotiations with the FAA.
The airport, primarily used by small aircraft operating on a nonscheduled basis, is maintained and operated by the City of Santa Monica, but aviation activities are under the direct control of the FAA.
A program of public input meetings remain to be held, including a technical presentation of the proposal during the Airport Commission meeting March 26th, said Trimborn.
COMMUNITY OPPOSITION — At the City Council meeting, members of Friends of Sunset Park, a neighborhood association, expressed their opposition to the proposed safety enhancements.
The issue is not only safety for pilots and passengers, but also for residents who live near the airport, which is being used increasingly by larger, faster aircraft that could potentially wipe out residential neighborhoods if they overrun or undershoot the runway, said Friends of Sunset Park president Zina Josephs.
The association believes that runway safety areas should be created by establishing both landing and departure “displaced thresholds” of 600 feet on each end of the runway, without engineered materials arresting systems, according to an association position statement.
In addition, limitations on aircraft use at the airport should be based on aircraft type, weight and weather conditions, not on pilot discretion, the neighborhood association says.
“I’ve been a resident of the city for over 30 years,” said Peter Donald, who lives at 32nd Street and Ocean Park Boulevard. “And I’ve been by this airport for that long — under it or next to it. It’s been a noisy, but a very agreeable neighbor for most of that timeÖ. That’s not true anymore.
“Now it’s like living next to a smelly Air Force base. It’s loud and we get a lot of vapor when the wind is coming toward us. And it becomes a real irritation in our lives.”
Donald says he thinks citizens are being asked to bear the brunt of certain health hazards.
“And I think that it’s not reasonable to expect us to do that for psychological and for health reasons,” he said.
He also asserted that there is measurable damage from the jet fuel and the fumes.
Donald said that if there were an accident involving a larger aircraft, “instead of a single house being crashed by a small airplane, you’re talking about wiping out a whole city block. So there is a real issue there.”
QUESTIONS OF AIRCRAFT SIZE AND SPEED — In July 2002, the Santa Monica Airport Commission voted to have a “Santa Monica Airport Design Standards Analysis” serve as a basis for an “Aircraft Conformance Program” (ACP) proposal to address the faster and larger aircraft coming in and out of the airport.
The Aircraft Conformance Program is an aircraft compatibility concept designed to enhance the overall safety of aircraft operations.
But in October 2002, the FAA filed an administrative complaint against the city for proposing the Aircraft Conformance Program.
In December 2002, the City Council was briefed on the Aircraft Conformance Program’s concept and the pending objections of the FAA.
Since then, the city has continued to meet with the FAA to try to resolve the matter. And the city has tried to work collaboratively with the FAA to address the runway safety issue.
“The issue that we’re here to talk about tonight is runway safety,” said Councilman Ken Genser. “And this council took a strong position and I think a pretty clear position, a number of years ago regarding the airport with our Airport Conformance Plan, which was essentially to have two buffers at either end of the runway.”
Genser said he had strong reservations about the direction things were going because he felt it would ultimately compromise safety, and also because he felt that the plan the city had adopted four years ago — to install two 300 foot runway safety areas on each end of the runway — assured safety in a quick and efficient manner.
But Genser said he felt discussion should continue after the airport commission had weighed in and “all the data is on the table.”
“Unless something new comes up, it’s my hope at that time we will direct staff to do what they can do to most quickly implement the conformance plan,” Genser said.
Mayor Richard Bloom said he shared the same concern, pointing out that the length of the process has been “really, really ridiculous.”
“We’re talking about — and members of the community spoke out very clearly about their concerns about — the extraordinary safety issues that exist at the airport,” Bloom said. “So it’s really important to me that we move this forward and come to some kind of conclusion.”
Councilman Kevin McKeown said that, for him, the issue is safety.
“I tend toward curiosity, and I always appreciate more information, but there comes a point where waiting begins to scare me,” McKeown said.
He said that, after negotiating in good faith with the FAA for over four years, “the runway is just as unsafe tonight as it was four years ago.”
“We can’t, in conscience, just continue to let safety be stalled by an FAA that, to my mind, has shown itself to be unresponsive to the safety concerns that we articulated very clearly,” said Mc- Keown, who didn’t support the plan that resulted from discussions between the FAA and the city. “I support the original safety proposal, which is a 300-foot safety buffer on each end of the runway, which is what the FAA’s own rules call for.
“Let’s direct staff to go to the airport commission with a commitment from the council that we want to install the 300-foot buffers for safety. If information comes out that we can’t do it, okay, I’m open to that. But let’s be really clear with where we’re headed. The time has come. Let’s do it.”