By Teresa Rochester
Calling it the best option to protect residents from the roar of planes, the City Council Tuesday night extended a lease for a company Santa Monica Airport officials say is sensitive to resident's needs.
In a 6 to 1 vote, the council approved a 4 ½ year lease for Chicago-based American Flyers, which opened shop in 1997 on a month-to-month lease. The company - which sits 300 feet from private homes in the southwest corner of the airport -- trains small plane pilots and rents parking spaces and hanger space for small planes.
With the city set to embark on an update to the Airport Master Plan next year -- which will include a comprehensive land use study and technical analysis to determine the appropriate use for land around the airport -- officials argued that the extended lease will ensure needed services for small planes, which cannot be achieved on a month-to-month lease.
Tuesday night's vote makes American Flyers the airport's third full service operator, a requirement if the city is to preserve park and residual land under a 1984 agreement between the Federal Aviation Administration and the city.
"I think it's been very clear working under a month to month that you can't hire permanent employees," Airport Director Jeff Mathieu told the council. "The key for us is, are we going to be able to maintain that compatibility to the community? Completing Airport Park needs three fixed base operators. It's that simple. We have an operator that's been excellent for 28 months."
Council members said they were supportive of the need to protect residents. The company that previously was located in American Flyer's current location fueled helicopters and jet craft that landed throughout the day and night, generating scores of complaints from residents.
"This is the best we can do now," said Mayor Ken Genser, who added that the city has a legal obligation to provide a third full service operator. "It's one that's compatible with the neighbors."
"We're seeing changes at the airport over the last couple of years," said Councilman Richard Bloom. "We are facing a tough situation with that. Our staff is trying to maintain that compatibility."
Councilman Robert Holbrook, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said that he was concerned about the services available to smaller aircraft.
"My concern has always been the small aircraft operator," Holbrook said. "Those kind of things have a real historical place at Santa Monica Airport. This fixed base operator is right next to our LA neighbors and it's obvious we don't want them ripping and roaring along. But my personal concern is I just want to make sure that in our community there be a place for them [small aircraft] and service for them."
Joseph Justice of Justice Aviation made a bid for the lease telling the council that while he has nothing against American Flyers, his company offers more services.
"We serve more of the public," said Justice. "We have five times the fleet. We give back to the community. We stand to do other things that Flyers doesn't stand to do."
Other speakers complained that American Flyers didn't rent small planes or service them, nor did the company fuel planes after 11 p.m. A representative from the company defended its actions.
"I basically wanted to come here to discuss not so much what we can do but what we have done so far," said Ron McPherson, the company's local director. "What we have done and proven over the last year is that we are responsible to this city. We have made numerous improvements to the facility over and beyond what the lease called for."
Airport Director Mathieu assured the council that with the longer lease in place American Flyers will now be able to hire qualified service people to repair small aircraft.
Despite an extended lease, American Flyers may not be a permanent fixture at the airport. Once the Airport Master Plan Update is completed, staff will once again go out for bids for an new fixed based operator.
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