By Olin Ericksen
March 28 -- While less than 500 feet of runway could
ground a compromise on important safety features at the local
airport, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Santa
Monica may now stand miles apart in negotiations to stop jets
from overrunning the airstrip.
In a move that stunned City officials who worry jet traffic
at the local airport poses a potential danger to neighboring
residents, FAA Monday asked the City to further curb proposed
safety measures at the Santa Monica Airport.
The unexpected message -- delivered at a well-attended Monday
workshop hosted by the Airport Commission -- came despite
recent negotiations between the FAA and City officials to
ensure jet traffic at the local airport does not careen off
runways into surrounding neighborhoods.
"There is a balance in terms of regional access,”
said Brian Armstrong, an FAA district official ordered by
regional superiors to attend the Santa Monica meeting. “Any
action that may restrict that access through the installation
of (safety systems) and Restricted Safety Areas is not acceptable."
City officials -- who felt the FAA had agreed with their
efforts to possibly carve out 900 total feet from Santa Monica's
5,000-foot runway -- were stunned to learn that only half
the footage of the safety area used to stop planes could be
Some 300 feet of plane arresting collapsible concrete proposed
would need to be cut to 165 feet on the west-facing runway
used by 90 percent of the traffic, Armstrong said.
In addition, 600 feet of proposed restricted strip on the
less frequently used east-facing runway would need to be reduced
by several hundred feet to give more take-off and landing
room for planes, he said.
Airport commissioners and experts said the changes would
mean more of the heavier, faster planes the system is designed
to catch could continue past the barrier in the event of an
accident at the small non-commercial airport.
Despite an increase in jet operations to nearly 18,000 flights
a year, the FAA believes airport safety is currently at its
highest because the increased runway length gives pilots more
time to react to a problem, Armstrong said.
"What we feel is the safest operation of the facility
is the way it operates today," Armstrong told commissioners
during several hours of pointed questioning at a rare public
appearance for FAA officials before the local body.
City officials -- who contend the increase in jet traffic
may violate a 1984 settlement between the City and the federal
government over a change in the mix of local operations –
were taken aback by the FAA’s message.
"That came as a complete surprise and, frankly, I see
it as a giant step backwards in securing the safety of our
neighborhoods," City Manager Lamont Ewell told The Lookout
Ewell -- whose office has been in talks with the FAA in the
last few months -- formally took control of airport issues
in January in an effort to move stalled negations forward
on a number of issues, especially safety.
Airport commissioners shared Ewell’s reaction.
"I believe the City was blindsided by the fact that
the FAA finds only half the safety (footage) acceptable,"
said Commission Chair Mark Young. "The only compromise
has been on the City's part… yet we have been asked
to compromise further."
Commissioners who took up the issue two weeks after the City
Council addressed airport safety -- operating under the same
assumption that 900 total feet of safety area was acceptable
to the FAA -- lashed out at the new conditions. But they held
off on making a formal recommendation to the City Manger until
"It seems to be the crux of this issue is balancing
tensions in maximizing access to (airport users) and us having
safety precautions," said Commissioner Ofer Grossman.
Grossman also suggested that when the commission makes a
recommendation on the safety enhancements presented to the
FAA for approval, the City should stop trying to find a middle
"As some point, we need to end this charade…and
just come up with something that is right for the City of
Santa Monica," he said, echoing the sentiment of other
Grossman and some of his colleagues accused the FAA of placing
traffic and commerce above the welfare of residents who live
in the densely packed flight path, only a few hundred feet
from an airport surrounded by homes and businesses.
"There is absolutely no weight given with respect to
increased safety at the airport," Grossman said.
Commissioner Susan Hartley asked pointblank whether "human
fatalities are ever factored into the calculations,"
when planning acceptable safety standards at airports.
While Armstrong testified that the FAA looks at a number
of factors when considering possible safety changes requested
by cities that own an airport, there is no specific calculation
for the cost of human casualties.
"That particular analysis does not look at the congregation
of population," he acknowledged.
Still, he said, impacts of a potential accident are still
considered in the broader analysis.
"Our focus is on the aviation aspect," he told
commissioners. "But the safety of people and property
is part of that equation."
While a few businesses said they would no longer use Santa
Monica Airport if the 600 feet were carved out for safety
on the east-facing runway, the majority of businesses said
it would force them to carry less cargo or fly to closer destinations.
If businesses no longer choose to use Santa Monica airport
because safety enhancements make it less convenient, it is
not a question of access.
"The fact that the inconvenience of a fueling stop versus
safety at the airport… is considered a loss of access
is unacceptable," said Grossman. "Those comments
are based on business decisions, not a restriction of access."
At least one commissioner suggested perhaps formulating a
motion based on safety performance so negotiations between
the City and FAA can continue without focusing on how many
feet could be lopped off the runway.
Others suggested making a flat recommendation to add 600
feet of restricted space on both ends of the runways, a move
that would dramatically impact growing jet traffic at the
It's been years since the FAA last testified before a local
commission and years since statistics first suggested that
the airport could be less safe due to an increase in jet traffic.
Before the City Manager's office makes its recommendation,
Airport commissioners, as well as the City Council, is expected
to weigh on the issue next month.
In the meantime, the City Attorney's office is working to
settle an administrative complaint by the FAA challenging
the City's 2002 Airport Conformance Plan, which restricts
the classes of aircraft -- namely jets -- at the airport and
was the first law of its kind in the United States.
In addition, an air quality study is being conducted by the
Air Quality Management District and area legislators are in
the process of determining what type of bill should be introduced
at the State level to tackle jet pollution locally.