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UPDATE: Counter Motion Filed Against FAA Challenge of SMO Settlement Review

Airplane landing at Santa Monica Airport
Airplane landing at Santa Monica Airport

Though the FAA calls the agreement fair, many aviation groups have vowed to continue the fight to keep the Santa Monica airport open.

The NBAA (National Business Aviation Association) has joined with five other aviation stakeholders in filing a motion before he U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. The motion requests a stay against the FAA and an injunction against the City of Santa Monica in order to prevent any further action towards either reducing the length of the runway or limiting aviation operations at Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO), while the court reviews the January 28, 2017, agreement between the FAA and the city.

The agreement requires that the runway remains open through December 31, 2028, but gives the city the go-ahead to reduce SMO’s only runway from it’s current length of 4,973 feet to 3,500 feet. After the announcement was revealed, NBAA and other groups filed a petition asking the appeals court to review the legality of that agreement. The FAA then filed a motion to dismiss the petition, saying that the agreement is not a final order subject to review.

So in response, NBAA and the other groups filed this latest motion. The other groups involved in the motion are:

  • The Santa Monica Airport Association (SMAA)
  • Bill’s Air Center, Inc. (A business based at SMO)
  • Kim Davidson Aviation (A business based at SMO)
  • Redgate Partners (An operator who frequently uses SMO)
  • Wonderful Citrus (An operator who frequently uses SMO)

More Details on the Latest NBAA Led Motion

In the latest filing, the groups argue that “the FAA failed to follow established procedures when issuing the settlement order” including considering the negative effect the agreement would have on both operators and businesses at the airport, and the National Airspace System on the whole.

In the filing, the groups state that “Even a cursory review of the actions taken – and not taken – by FAA finds that the agency did not comply with requirements both basic and mandatory, and thus the settlement agreement is invalid – as would be any actions taken in reliance upon it.”

The NBAA’s COO Steven Brown is confident the appeals court will find the agreement to be flawed, saying that by spearheading an agreement to restrict and ultimate close “a significant and vital Southern California airport, the FAA failed to abide by its own mandate to defend national aviation infrastructure.

NBAA’s Western Regional Representative Stacy Howard says that restricting turbine aircraft operations at SMO would jeopardize many existing airport businesses, and drive out operators as well. She continues that the agreement isn’t justing hurting faceless businesspeople, but that many of businesses based at SMO and headquartered in its vicinity “provide employment for thousands from the surrounding area. Curtailing aviation access to this vital airport would terribly impact them and hurt Santa Monica’s economy.

For those interested in reading the full motion, you can click here.

UPDATE 2-15-17: NBAA Seeks Court Review of FAA Agreement to Close SMO

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and five other aviation stakeholders have jointly petitioned the US Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, asking them to review the recent agreement the FAA reached with the City of Santa Monica to both shut down the Santa Monica Airport by 2028, and move ahead on immediate work to shorten the airport’s runway from 4,973 feet to 3,500 feet.

NBAA’s President and CEO Ed Bolen called the FAA’s agreement with the city “a one-of-a-kind development” that would serve only to strongly restrict aviation access throughout not only Southern California, but also across the country. He added that “Santa Monica’s airport is a vital asset to our aviation system, both locally as well as nationally, and serves as a critical transportation lifeline for the entire Los Angeles basin. NBAA remains committed to aggressively supporting unrestricted business aviation access to SMO, through this petition and other available channels.

The group is joined in the petition by the Santa Monica Airport Association (SMAA), Bill’s Air Center, and Kim Davidson Aviation (a pair of business located at the airport that are being directly impacted by the events), and a pair of operators, Redgate Partners and Wonderful Citrus. For those interested, NBAA has provided a link to the petition here.

NBAA also says that in addition to the petition, they will continue to review and pursue all additional options, which would include “several ongoing administrative complaints – not covered under the settlement – by NBAA and others over the city’s federally mandated obligations.” One of these complaints would be the NBAA’ previously filed Part 16 complaint that alleges the city mishandled airport finances, landing fees, and other terms.

Other groups, like AOPA, hold similar views, saying that over the next 12 years, they will also continue working “to change local attitudes and views and educate the community about the value of the local resource.

UPDATE 2-8-16: Anti-Airport Protesters Not Happy with FAA Settlement

After Santa Monica’s city council narrowly voted 4-3 to approve the FAA’s settlement, anti-airport protesters gathered to protest the fact that the airport will have to stay open for at least 12 more years.

According to the Santa Monica Daily Press, Mayor Ted Winterer, who voted for the agreement, still made an appearance at the protest to defend his vote. He said that the city will, in six months time, reduce the runway to 3,500 feet which he believes will also reduce air traffic by 44%. He also said that the city will exploit every loophole available to reduce air traffic.

This is backed up by AOPA, who received word from Santa Monica Airport Association President Christian Fry, who attended the protest, that city officials openly discussed what Fry called “draconian” methods to choke off usage of the airport. This would include such things as security inspections of every aircraft and the installation of a Plexiglas barrier between observation and aircraft movement area in order to discourage plane watchers.

Fry added that they were continuing to consult with attorneys and advocacy groups, including AOPA and NBAA, on what the next steps would be, but that nothing had been decided yet.

This all stands in contrast to what FAA Administrator Micahel Huerta has said. “Reasonable and customary business practices are going to be what we are going to be looking for. We’re going to be quite vigilant to ensure that the terms of the agreement are adhered to.

UPDATE 1-31-17: FAA Reaches Settlement With City To Close SMO by 2028

The FAA has revealed that they’ve reached a settlement agreement with the City of Santa Monica, California, to resolve the long, ongoing legal fight over the future of the Santa Monica Airport.

According to the FAA, the agreement will require that the city maintains a continuous and stable operation of the airport until December 31, 2028, after which time the city will have the right to close the airport. In addition, the FAA says they are recognizing “the city’s authority to make decisions about land use,” and allowing them to shorten the single runway at Santa Monica Airport from it’s current length of 4,973 feet to 3,500 feet. Finally, the city will be obligated to enter into leases with private aviation service providers to ensure they’re able to continue providing the necessary service until both the runway is shortened, and the city decides to provide those service on their own. Additional terms of the deal have not yet been made public.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that mutual cooperation between the agency and the city allowed them to arrive at this “innovative solution” to the many legal and regulatory issues, adding that “This is a fair resolution for all concerned because it strikes an appropriate balance between the public’s interest in making local decisions about land use practices and its interests in safe and efficient aviation services.

Responses to the Santa Monica Airport Deal

The response to the deal on the city side has been predictably positive, though many parties fighting for closure of the airport expressed that they would have preferred it closed sooner. The City of Santa Monica’s Mayor called the referred to the outcome as historic, saying that “The FAA has finally and categorically said that we can do whatever we want with our land at the end of 2028. This is a windfall for the residents of the city.

The aviation community responded with surprise, disappointment, and concern regarding the decision, with many vowing that this is not the end of the matter.

NBAA (National Business Aviation Association) President and CEO Ed Bolen said that group is still reviewing the specific terms of the deal, and that “we will continue to fight for unfettered access to Santa Monica Airport. We are dismayed that consideration would be given to this kind of arrangement, in the process discriminating against the local entrepreneurs and businesses that rely on the airfield.” Bolen added that the group was disappointed that the government decided to settle the case, and reiterated that they would explore any and all further avenues open to the to continue supporting the airport.

NATA (National Air Transportation Association) President Martin H. Hiller also said that they would be studying the details of the deal closely, and said the agreement was “clearly a compromise.” And though Hiller said that the group was pleased the FAA said the city is obligated to extend leases to current aviation service providers until they can provide the proper services themselves, he expressed disappointment that “businesses both on and off the field that depend on SMO were not part of the negotiations.

AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) President Mark Baker expressed similar sentiments regarding reviewing the details of the agreement, and added that “our main goal—to keep this airport permanently open and available to all general aviation users—remains unchanged.” The group says they will work to ensure the airport has a stable supply of resources during the next 12 years, and that they’ll be working daily in order to win support for the Santa Monica Airport “to keep it open far beyond 2028.

Jack J. Pelton, the CEO and Chairman of EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association), expressed surprise at the announcement of the settlement, calling it “certainly a disappointing development, first concerning the immediate ability to shorten the runway, and the ultimate ability to close the airport in 2028.” He added that while they can only guess at the “inside discussions” necessary to reach the agreement, that to their knowledge, “the airport’s stakeholders were not a part of it.

Finally, the Santa Monica Airport Association (SMAA) set aside diplomacy, with the group’s Chairman Bill Worden responding to the decision in a post titled ‘Et Tu, Brute?‘ coupled with an image of a bloody dagger. “The FAA, rather than testing the validity of the 1948 Instrument of transfer in the 9th Circuit Court as we anticipated, has, instead, caved in to the the City of Santa Monica at the eleventh hour and, in a classic backroom deal, agreed to allow the City to close the airport as early as 2028. An additional concession allows the City to shorten the runway in the immediate future from a mile to just 3500 feet which eliminates the larger business jets.

Worden said they hadn’t been able to review the “shameful document” themselves, but they were not happy that it appeared to give the city the right to oust established aviation service providers and supply those services themselves. He concluded that though the road is definitely harder, they intended to continue the fight, to the highest levels of the federal government if necessary, in order to “redress this inequity” and keep the airport open. “The ‘fat lady’ has not sung.

UPDATE 12-14-16: FAA Issues Cease and Desist Order to City of Santa Monica

Just yesterday, the FAA issued an interim cease-and-desist order to the City of Santa Monica to halt the eviction process of two long-standing FBO’s at Santa Monica Airport, until the agency can finish their investigation into the city’s ongoing attempt to shut down the airport. The evictions of Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers were the latest move on the city’s part to try and force out various airport tenants in order to reduce air traffic and shut down the airport by July 2018.

The original eviction notices were sent to the FBO’s on September 15 earlier this year. The two FBO’s then filed Part 16 complaints with the FAA, looking for the agency to step in and block the eviction.

On September 26, the FAA responded to the eviction orders, saying they would be conducting an investigation, “which included investigating the city’s failure to enter into leases with aeronautical tenants.”  In the just issued cease-and-desist order, the agency further states that “Grant assurance 22 requires the city to make space available for aeronautical tenants on reasonable terms based on good faith negotiations. The city has failed to grant any aeronautical leases since 2015 and is alleged to have negotiated in bad faith while seeking onerous and unreasonable terms. Moreover, while the City’s airport leasing policy provides for a broad collection of uses, the majority of which are incompatible with an operating airport, the obvious use category that the leasing policy fails to include is aviation.

The agency added that they would also be investigating the November 4 Unlawful Detainer actions the city filed against the pair of FBO’s. In closing, the FAA says that the cease-and-desist order is not their final ruling, but that, “This Order is intended to maintain the status quo at SMO until such time as FAA completes its investigation under the NOI and issues a final agency decision.” The FAA added that they reserved the right to revisit the finding in the interim order based on the findings of their investigation and that the city would have 30 days to file a response to the order.

In a separate action, both Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers had also requested that a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge step in to halt the evictions as well. A hearing regarding that request is set for January 3, 2017.

Responses To the Cease and Desist Order

With the issuing of the order, R. Christopher Harshman, an attorney for American Flyer, said, “We are pleased that the FAA has recognized our client’s federally protected right to be at the airport.

Tony Vasquez, the Mayor of the City of Santa Monica responded to the order as well, saying “While we are disappointed but not surprised that the FAA has decided to issue this interim order on the pending evictions of Atlantic and American Flyer, we remain committed to replacing private fixed-based operations with public services.

NATA (National Air Transport Association), who lent their voice in support of Atlantic back in September, weighed in again, with their President Martin H. Hiller thanking the FAA for their continued involvement in the matter. “The agency’s action today is consistent with defending a regulatory structure that recognizes and preserves the integrity of airports and encourages operational safety and healthy airport business. As the FAA noted today, the closure of SMO would create significant congestion of air navigation in the greater Los Angeles area and impose a significant burden on the flying public.” Hiller added that the FAA is asking all the right questions in their investigation and that he was confident their findings would support NATA’s view in the matter.

NBAA’s (National Business Aviation Association) President and CEO Ed Bolen said that although federal regulations “may allow the city to operate its own FBO, the city has also repeatedly made clear its intent to place as many restrictions as possible on general aviation operations at SMO.” He added that the city’s ill-conceived efforts to close and restrict the airport have been a waste of taxpayer dollars, and have also resulted in lost opportunities to “work with the aviation community to ensure that the airport continues to be a good neighbor and a vibrant, irreplaceable asset.

For those interested in reading the full text of the FAA’s interim cease-and-desist order, NBAA has provided a link to the document.

UPDATE 10-17-16: NBAA and AOPA Urge FAA to Act Against City of Santa Monica

The NBAA (National Business Aviation Association) and AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) are calling on the FAA to step up their efforts against the City of Santa Monica’s “strangulation strategy” regarding the airport (SMO).

In a letter sent to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on the 14th, NBAA CEO and President Ed Bolen welcomed the agency’s recent efforts to keep the airport functioning, but urged them to address “the city’s ongoing, self-described ‘strangulation’ strategy for SMO. The city has not stopped – and indeed, has accelerated – its efforts to restrict aeronautical uses of SMO.” He added that as the city continues to use this strategy, there’s significant risk to the future of SMO if the FAA doesn’t take immediate additional action. He said that any victory wouldn’t end up being worth it, “because in the meantime, the city will succeed in withering away the services available at the airport, and along with them its aeronautical user base.

AOPA President Mark Baker also sent a similar letter to the FAA, saying “I write today to urge the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to move expeditiously to administratively issue a cease and desist order or, alternatively, seek injunctive relief in Federal court to bring a halt to the dismantling of the Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) until all pending legal and administrative complaints have been fully resolved.

In the letter, Baker outlined some of the actions being taken, including refusing to accept new rental agreements with aviation tenants, not accepting rent payments from existing tenants, issuing eviction notices for two of the FBOs at the airport (Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers), and tripling the monthly rent for the Typhoon Restaurant, which has led to them announcing that they’ll be closing down next month. “This strangulation strategy employed by the City of Santa Monica does not comport with the intent of the federal grant obligations. We urge the agency to act on this request as quickly as possible.

Baker added that if the issue wasn’t properly addressed in a timely manner, that what is currently happening at the Santa Monica Airport could have far reaching consequences throughout the United States.

ORIGINAL POST 8-16-16: FAA Says City of Santa Monica Required to Keep Santa Monica Airport Open

The FAA has reaffirmed its December 2015 ruling that the City of Santa Monica will be required to keep the Santa Monica Airport open through at least August 27th, 2023. In the ruling released Monday, after re-examining their decision, the FAA denied the city’s appeal to their previous decision. They maintain that due to accepting grant money, the city was still obligated to keep the airport open.

Here’s what the final decision said, “Based on this re-examination, the FAA concludes that the director’s determination is supported by a preponderance of reliable, probative and substantial evidence, and is consistent with applicable law, precedent and FAA policy.

Details on The Dispute Around Keeping the Santa Monica Airport Open

In 1994, Santa Monica received a grant for $1,604,700 to be used for planning and airport development. By 1996, the city had completed the projects that were funded by the grant. However, in 2003, the city applied for an amendment to the original grant, seeking and receiving an additional $240,600 in funding. Now, as part of grant agreements with the FAA, recipients have to keep any facilities funded with grant money operational for at least 20 years.

In the city’s view, with the initial funding coming through in 1994, this obligation was fulfilled in 2014. And so they began moving forward with plans to close down the airport. However, a group of aviation interests including, among others, the NBAA, Krueger Aviation, flight school Justice Aviation (who has since closed operations at the airport after reaching a settlement with the city), actor / pilot Harrison Ford, Kim Davidson Aviation (a maintenance shop), and local aircraft owners, filed a Part 16 complaint. They claimed that by accepting the additional grant money in 2003, the city had renewed their 20-year obligation, and the city was violating their agreement with the FAA by saying it ended in 2014.

According to NBAA’s Director of Airports and Ground Infrastructure Alex Gertsen, “It is indisputable that Santa Monica officials received those grant funds and the city’s legal obligations under the terms of that policy are equally indisputable. We thank the FAA for its careful consideration of the issue.

The city, however, argued that the 2003 grant money shouldn’t trigger the 20-year rule, as it wasn’t a new grant but rather an addition, or amendment, to an existing grant, to which their obligation ended in 2014. So city officials filed a motion to dismiss the Part 16 complaint. However, that motion was denied by the FAA in December of 2015.

The city appealed that decision, and that first appeal is what was just denied.

City Officials Respond to the Denial

Santa Monica Mayor Tony Vazquez replied to the ruling in a written statement.

We are not surprised. The FAA has once again acted in their favor, as judge and jury in matters involving the future of Santa Monica’s land. We did not expect the FAA to rule against itself. We will act swiftly to appeal this decision to a federal appellate court where an impartial panel of judges will consider all of the facts and our legal claims will finally be given fair consideration. Our City Council is committed to protect the health and safety of all the communities that have been forced to endure the adverse impacts from the airport.

Additional Disputes Surrounding the Santa Monica Airport

The city is also currently engaged in a lawsuit over the ownership of the airport land. Airport proponents point out that the 1948 deed that transferred control of the Santa Monica Airport from the federal government to the city under the Surplus Property Act requires that the airport be maintained for public use in perpetuity. The city disputes that interpretation, and the case in now in federal court.

The NBAA has also filed a second Part 16 complaint, alleging that the city grossly overcharged for airport landing fees, mishandled airport finances, and failed to offer new leases to aviation-related business operating from the airport, all in an effort to shut the airport down. The FAA has accepted the complaint but has not yet issued a ruling.

SMO is a vital aviation resource in Southern California, and an important economic contributor to the community,” Gertsen added. “We hope that city officials will now turn their efforts toward preserving a fair and equitable operating environment for pilots and businesses operating at SMO, rather than wasting public funds to mount numerous court challenges focused on the single, misguided purpose of shuttering this important facility.

For those interested, NBAA has provided a link to a document containing the full ruling.

Featured Image: McClave, CC2

Anders Clark was introduced to aviation a few short years ago, and has developed an interest in aviation history and what the future of aviation will bring. A writer and editor, Anders enjoys researching and sharing the stories of aviation.