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City Restricts Jets, Prepares to Land in Court

By Jorge Casuso

March 27 -- After four hours of debating data, methodology, modeling and accident probabilities with federal officials, the City Council Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance to restrict faster, larger jets at Santa Monica Airport that will land the City in court.

The decision comes more than five years after Santa Monica and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials began debating safety measures that put the two parties on a collision course, with the City accusing the agency of placing the convenience of pilots ahead of the safety of neighboring residents.

On Tuesday -- nearly four months after approving the first reading of the ordinance -- the council gave final clearance to a plan that shortens the runway and adds safety areas at either end that abide by current federal standards.

Before the vote, council members vociferously rejected the FAA’s latest proposal to install a concrete arresting system that slows down aircraft travelling at 70 knots, noting that it would be only capable of stopping two of the seven large aircraft that frequent the 63-year-old airport.

“Safety is number one,” said Mayor Herb Katz. “I don’t think the FAA has addressed it. You have delayed it. We’re not getting anywhere.”

“It simply doesn’t go far enough to address the safety issues. . . or come close to safety measures in the ordinance,” Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom said of the agency’s proposal. “I think it’s time for us to move forward.”

“The solution presented by the FAA bothers me,” said Council member Bob Holbrook. “It’s not adequate.”

The council was well aware the decision to approve the ordinance on second reading would be challenged in court, and the lengthy study session and public hearing before the quick formal vote was meant to put the City on firmer legal ground.

“I am aware of the struggle we are about to enter here,” said Council member Kevin McKeown. “I hope the City of LA appreciates the war little Santa Monica is about to get into” to protect residents, many of whom live in neighboring Los Angeles.

Noting that the ordinance would be held up in court, Council member Bobby Shriver made a successful motion directing staff to study the possibility of instituting the FAA’s plan during what promises to be a lengthy legal battle.

“This litigation could take quite a while,” said Shriver. “This is an issue of federal power over a local facility.

“We should direct staff to study the EMAS proposed by the FAA,” he said, referring to the Engineered Materials Arresting System (EMAS), a bed of crushed concrete designed to capture the landing gear of a wayward aircraft.

“We’re veterans of litigation,” said Holbrook. “We know how to do this thing. The problem is years may go by. In the meantime, can we afford to ignore anything that can provide a safer airport?”

The FAA’s plan called for a 250 foot EMAS bed with a 25 foot lead-in at one end of the runway, compared with the 1,000 feet of safety area under the new City ordinance, which bans C and D aircraft with approach speeds faster than 121 knots.

The council’s vote came after hearing testimony from neighboring residents, who ticked off the dates when aircraft overran the runways at other airports and listed the fatalities such accidents have caused.

The vote also capped an often contentious questioning of Kirk Shaffer, FAA associate administrator for airports, who presented the agency’s plan.

Shaffer’s data and the methodology used to arrive at the number of aircraft impacted by the dueling proposals were met with skepticism.

“I saw a fancy modeling program and lots of statistics,” said Bloom, “but I didn’t see much. . . when it comes to actual impact on operations.”

Shaffer countered that the City consultant’s report “impresses us as being technically deficient.”

“The only way to get a risk free situation is not to do aviation,” Shaffer said, adding that “the rate of incidents will continue to decline with improved technology.”

“That’s the same thing the people who designed the Titanic said,” Council member Ken Genser shot back.”

“The engineering is precise,” Katz said, “the human is not.”

The vote came as City officials and residents who live near the airport increasingly worry that soaring jet traffic -- from 4,829 jet operations in 1994 to 18,575 last year -- is putting neighboring homes, as well as pilots, in danger.

The threatened litigation is not the first time the FAA would sue the City for restricting jet traffic.

In 1979, the City banned some jet access to the airport, whose B-II classification means the airport is suitable for category A and B aircraft with approach speeds slower than 121 knots.

But litigation resulted in a 1984 settlement agreement governing airport operations until 2015. The agreement, FAA officials say, allows newer category C and D aircraft, which tend to be larger and faster jets.

FAA officials say they are obligated to keep access available to C and D aircraft, because Santa Monica Airport is an important reliever airport in the national system.

City officials contend that the airport does not meet the FAA’s own safety standards for B-II airports and for airports that would accommodate C and D aircraft.

Federal standards for C and D aircraft call for 1,000-foot runway safety areas at both ends of a runway, airport officials said.


“Safety is number one.” Herb Katz


“The rate of incidents will continue to decline with improved technology.” Kirk Shaffer

“That’s the same thing the people who designed the Titanic said.” Ken Genser


“We’re veterans of litigation. We know how to do this thing." Bob Holbrook


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