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Los Angeles City Council Seeks Change in SMO Flight Paths  

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

April 22, 2011 -- The Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday in support of federal legislation to close flight schools at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) and redirect air traffic so it will not pass over Venice and the Penmar Golf Course.

The resolution – introduced by Council members Bill Rosendahl, Janice Hahn and Paul Koretz, at least two of whom have gone on record in support of closing SMO – is meant to enhance safety and reduce pollution in their districts.

But Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, to say nothing of some Santa Monica residents, take exception to the resolution's arguments.

According to Los Angeles' Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry F. Miller, altering the flight path of aircraft would “enhance safety.” His summary linked to the resolution states that the flight paths of jets taking off from SMO and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) intersect offshore.

However, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor says the flight paths pose no danger.

“We have standard procedures in place to keep Santa Monica jet departures and LAX departures safely separated from one another,” Gregor said. “The close proximity of the two airports is by no means a safety issue.”

Gregor added that air traffic controllers are in constant contact with the jets which are being tracked by radar.

Should the flight path be changed, some in Santa Monica feel the danger would just be diverted to their neighborhoods.

Last year, a route was tested that passed over the Sunset Park and Ocean Park neighborhoods.

It was resoundingly opposed by residents, and “the (city) council took a very strong position opposing the proposed flight departure rules,” Assistant to the City Manager Kate Vernez told the Lookout Thursday.

“The City is working with the FAA and aviation experts [including RAND Corporation] to provide alternatives while maintaining neighborhood and aircraft safety.”

The route over Santa Monica would pass over 17,000 households and 22 schools, including preschools, Zina Josephs, President of Friends of Sunset Park, told the Lookout Thursday. Friends of Sunset Park is known for its tough stands on airport safety, noise and pollution.

The topography of the runway and environs militates against rerouting planes over Sunset Park, Josephs said.

The end of the runway is 118 feet above sea level, while the Sunset Park plateau is 174 feet above sea level and the hilly section of Ocean Park is 135 feet above sea level, she said.

It would make more sense for airplanes to gain altitude over the golf course, which is 46 feet above sea level, Josephs said.

Ultimately, it's up to the FAA to decide where the routes go, Gregor said. Vernez and SMO officials agreed that the FAA has jurisdiction in the matter, although Vernez was emphatic that no decisions on flight paths or environmental issues will be made without a full measure of public input.

Miller's summary in support of Wednesday's L.A. City Council resolution also cited safety reasons for closing flight schools at SMO, a claim the FAA took issue with.

“(S)ix flight training schools at SMO expose the densely populated local neighborhoods to potential safety hazards of pilot errors or inexperience in aircraft overhead,” Miller wrote.

But, according to Gregor, “Nobody has offered one bit of evidence suggesting that Santa Monica flight school operations are anything but safe.”

“While certain people have tried to link a 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 added.

The better part of Miller's summary deals with particulates generated by idling jets.

According to the summary, because SMO and LAX jets share airspace, SMO jets often have to wait for takeoff, befouling the air as they do so.

“While idling on the runways, these jets spew high concentrations of air emissions into neighboring West Los Angeles communities such as Mar Vista and Palms,” Miller wrote.

Again, Gregor disagrees.

“Jet operators call the control tower for permission to start their engines,” Gregor said. “We give that permission just a few minutes before the aircraft is scheduled to depart.

“This way, they don't sit with their engines running for long periods of time before they are able to take off,” he said.

Gregor added that the jets are positioned in such a way that their exhaust isn't aimed at residential neighborhoods until they're within a minute of take-off.

It's no secret that Rosendahl wants to see SMO closed when the city's contract with the FAA expires in 2015.

A year ago at a rally protesting noise and pollution, Rosendahl, who was joined by Koretz, said the airport should be closed altogether, a sentiment recently echoed by Hahn.

“Ninety years ago the leaders at the time built this airport, we were bean fields and orange groves,” Rosendahl said. “We are no longer that. We are the most dense urban seaside community in the United States of America and it’s time that the airport shut down.”

Recently, another local elected official, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, added an amendment to an FAA reauthorization bill that calls for the FAA and the City of Santa Monica to to conduct “good faith” negotiations to address safety issues.


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