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Congressman Urges Faster Investigation into Santa Monica Airport Crash

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

November 19, 2013 -- Citing concerns that further delays would hurt an investigation into September’s fatal plane crash at Santa Monica Airport (SMO), Congressman Henry Waxman called for federal investigators to fast-track efforts Monday.

In a letter to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Deborah A. P. Hersman, Waxman called for investigators to “redouble” their efforts to make up for time lost during a two-week partial shutdown of the U.S. government in October. ("Government Shutdown Delays Investigation into Cause of Santa Monica Plane Crash," October 2)

While Waxman’s most recent letter focused on the potential negative impact on the investigation of the government shutdown, he has recently begun calling for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to sit down with the community and local government representatives to discuss the future of the controversial 97-year-old airport.

“The community surrounding Santa Monica Airport has had long-standing concerns about the safety of the airport,” Waxman wrote in his letter to Hersman.

The FAA, however, has rejected several invitations by Waxman to discuss the airport, which the City of Santa Monica claims it is only obligated to operate until 2015. ("Congressman Wants FAA Forum on Santa Monica Airport's Future," July 18)

In his letter, Waxman refers to Airport Commissioner David Goddard’s assertion that, the September accident endangered homes near the airport.

According to the NTSB’s initial report of the accident, veteran pilot and Morley Builders CEO Mark Benjamin landed his Cessna Citation at Santa Monica Airport without a problem in the afternoon of September 29.

For reasons yet unknown, the jet then swerved off the runway into a nearby hangar, causing an explosion and a fire that killed all four people in the plane.

“(T)he Santa Monica Airport Commission Chairman believes that if the plane had not struck the hangar, it might have gone over an embankment and crashed into nearby residences,” Waxman wrote.

The NTSB has not yet determined if that’s true.

“Typically, it takes about 12 to 18 months” to conclude an investigation, said NTSB spokesperson Keith Holloway. “In the interim, it's possible that more information could be added to the report.”

If Goddard’s assertion is true, it would bolster arguments made by advocates for closing the airport.

Community leaders “have warned that SMO is an accident waiting to happen, and I have been fighting for safety improvements for many years,” Waxman wrote.

The question of improvements is a sticky one, however, because if they are funded with federal money, there are strings attached.

Santa Monica, who owns the 226-acre property and runs the airport, has made a policy of not taking federal money precisely because City Hall wants to maintain as much autonomy over the parcel as possible.

Santa Monica’s policy is particularly important now that the City has sued the FAA, which claims the City must operate the land as an airport in perpetuity, to determine who gets final say in the ultimate fate of the airport. ("City Hall Sues FAA Over Future of Santa Monica Airport," November 1)

“It is critically important that NTSB conduct its investigation into the accident as thoroughly and expeditiously as is possible,” Waxman wrote.

NTSB representatives said that Hersman will likely respond in the next couple of days.

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