Going Direct: Betrayal—What’s Behind FAA’s Santa Monica Sneak Attack

When news broke that the FAA had struck a deal with the City of Santa Monica to rob the aviation world of historic Santa Monica Airport, we assumed we’d somehow missed previous coverage of the agency working with the SoCal and worldwide community of pilots who’ve been fighting for decades to keep SMO open. We were wrong. It was a sneak attack. Here’s why the FAA did the dirty deal as best we can figure.

You’ve got to find it strange that the FAA all along has been working very transparently with its stakeholders, which means pilots, FBO owners, flight schools, manufacturers and charter organizations, to name but a few, and then goes off and makes a deal with the City of Santa Monica that is, in all fairness, a compromise, but a compromise that starts with a slap in the face - the shortening of the runway to keep bizjets away - and ends with the coup de grace: the shut down of SMO in 2028. In effect, it’s two shutdowns in one deal: the closing of the airport to jet traffic and the eventual closing to all traffic so the City of Santa Monica can develop all the land into high rises and... Oh, I meant, turn it into a park. That I’ll believe when I see it. Which I hope I never do.

So why did the FAA backstab the entire aviation world with this deal? There are only a few reasons.

First off, one that if true is disturbing. They just changed their minds about the whole thing. After decades of fighting to keep SMO open in perpetuity, they suddenly decided it’s okay to lop off a quarter of the runway and shut it down altogether in 10 years, a course of action that is in diametric opposition to their previous stance. The only way this could have happened is not that the FAA changed its collective mind, but that its mind was changed for it. With a new administration and SecDot in Elaine Chao, perhaps the FAA had some pressure put on it to settle. The land itself is probably worth a billion dollars. 

In an interview with AOPA Live, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told AOPA's Tom Haines that the agency had been in mediation with the City of Santa Monica for around 6 months and that the ruling by an appeals court that Santa Monica's suit against the FAA should be heard were factors leading to the FAA's decision to cut a deal. That decision, to be clear, is a reversal of opinion by the FAA on the case and its merits, and it happened, according to Huerta, at least six months ago. Still, first time the aviation world heard about it was after the deal had already been struck. Considering all the elements, it's hard to understand why the FAA wouldn't have at least shared with its stakeholders that it was looking to agree to the closure of the airport.

The second possibility is that Santa Monica had too good a case and the FAA was afraid of losing outright. This one is not very credible. The result of the FAA losing the case would have, at worst, been a few years of appeals before Santa Monica, if victorious in those appeals, could shutter the airport. And during that time we’d be left with a 5,000 foot runway instead of one that’s 3,500 feet, and the chance to win outright and keep SMO open forever. It’s a no brainer to fight the suit.

I fear that the former is the more likely possibility, that the FAA found itself under pressure to give the right to close the airport back to Santa Monica and the ten-year transition period was a way for the agency to fend off criticism from those of us who know that it’s a thousand times easier to close a big-city GA strip than it is to build one.

In the end the FAA conducted an operation just as sneaky as that of then Chicago May0r Richard M. Daley in 2003 when he ordered his crews to bulldoze beloved Meigs Field. The FAA's process in this case might seem more civilized, but when you look at the end results, this dirty deal was just as much as a demolition as Chicago's was. 

If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

13 thoughts on “Going Direct: Betrayal—What’s Behind FAA’s Santa Monica Sneak Attack

  1. The Santa Monica city government now knows that the FAA has no interest in contesting this, and is a toothless dog in this fight. The next move will be a Daley-like move to suddenly close the airport. At worst, they know they will get a hand slap. Remember that Chicago got fined $30,000. Even this wasn’t for closing the airport, it was for using airport improvement funds from the other airports to demolish the runway at Meigs. Disgusting!

  2. From friends out that way it seems as though a “park” is a term that sounds warm and cuddly, sort of like puppies and kittens. The reason will reveal itself to be massive development and the resulting flow of revenue to the city from real estate taxes. (“Follow the ‘money….” remember?) The resulting loss of jobs and convenience to general aviation means absolutely nothing.

  3. It probably boiled down to money. Federal government probably saw more dollar signs with high rises and retail stores than with GA. I’m sure that there are more shut downs to come!

  4. I live near there and fly into Santa Monica frequently. So many people will lose good paying jobs now. And I fear there will be accidents with the shortened runway since the tower frequently gives very steep approaches and there will not be enough space for aborted takeoffs / emergencies. I would not put it past the city council to be fully aware of this and planning to use the first crash as an excuse to speed up the closing. They are a rotten bunch at the city council, and everyone who lives there knows they are drooling at the thought of more property tax dollars to spend. Nobody wanted that airport closed except a few in government and a group of developers.

  5. I recently spoke to a lady who is on the committee to shut down the airport. She stated it wasn’t the small GA planes that were the problem. It was the jets that operated during restricted hours and just paid the fine. If what she says is true, and I have no reason to believe she was lying, then we have the jet operators to blame for part of this problem. Maybe the FAA knew this and decided that a compromise was necessary. That’s why I’m guessing the runway would be shortened immediately, reducing jet traffic. If what she said was true, then our fellow aviators are partly to blame. On the bright side, GA pilots have about 10 years to prove they can be good neighbors. Political climate can change as we have seen recently, and peoples minds can change also. Think of new things that will be available in GA that might be attractive to some of the residents of Santa Monica. After a few years with the noise problem gone, those residents may be fighting to keep it, so they can use their new, expensive flying cars.

  6. If maintaining the length of the runway and keeping the airport open is important, then all of tenants who lease hangar space, but especially, the jet aircraft owners, and all other local and distant aviation interest, will pool their resources and file a class-action lawsuit against the City and the FAA. If interest is nil, then the combination of LAX, Torrance, Hawthorne and Long Beach will all be happy to have the new aviation business.

    In as far as the City Council being greedy for more revenue, that seems nonsensical since their residential property tax revenues are all based on a home valuations of from $1.4 to $15 million. Unless most of the homeowners have owned their homes for over thirty years, (and subject to pre-1987 valuations) the City is NOT hurting for property-tax cash-flow. And with full employment in the City, neither is the City hurting for sales tax revenue.

    Consequently, since local land developers are likely City elders who are all best friends and perhaps all Masons or members of other fraternities, money is not the issue. It’s simply local politics, and the politics favors exchanging aviation use for commercial and residential development.

  7. Interesting that the city will preserve a dilapidated house in their area & make its owner jump through the hoops to restore it because someone thinks it has “histortic” value, but they won’t protect an airport that is genuinely historic to the aviation industry, the city, California & the USA. I attended several public hearings on KSMO and never once did the city council even pretend to listen to the airport supporters. Seems they were paid in advance for their support. What a shame that our government leaders(?) have evolved into such respectable creatures. Good luck with the park!

  8. Well, there are several concerns which I have:
    1. The shortening of the runway may very well lead to serious accidents and injuries. Family members of mine fly in and out of KSMO. If any of them are injured due to the shortened runway, I will bring a negligence claim against the city and any anti airport residents who provided erroneous information over the years to the city and others. I don’t care if I win. I will be out to bankrupt as many of them as possible through attorney’s fees. I will move my jet to kvny. Not a big deal. I can simply helicopter to KSMO from there.

    2. The residents who maintain that measure LC will protect the area from development into anything but a park are essentially deluding themselves. From what I have read of the reactions to this deal, most of the anti airport crowd is not a fan of the deal at all. They can expect the same kind of transparency and community input, when the Council approves development projects on airport property, which is of course zero community involvement.
    3. City Council members have already taken to the media to separate themselves from this deal. When a politician does that so quickly, something is amiss which hasn’t yet come to light.
    I have been dealing with government agencies for decades. I am very familiar with the dance routine of local governments in situations such as this one. This whole thing reeks of a corruption feast which simply has not yet been laid bare for everyone to see.
    Time will tell.
    By the way, my helicopter is a lot more noisy then my gulfstream. I was willing to donate plenty of funds to help alleviate the noise for the neighbors. That willingness is now off the table. My pilots will be ignoring the voluntary curfews and other non-code noise abatement procedures. I will pay the fines, they don’t matter. I can easily spend that much on fuel to go to NY or Europe.
    Today the City made yet another enemy. That was an unwise move if you ask me.

  9. What is amazing to me, is that neither side saw this coming. The cycle of fighting and settlements is well established when it comes to this airport. Every few years, the City ratchets up its offensive to close the airport and every few years, the opposition and the City come to some sort of deal via a Settlement Agreement. You can easily see the pattern, yet nobody on either side of the issue seems to have anticipated this. Thats remarkably naive.
    The other element in all this I personally find amazing is that the residents who oppose the airport so vehemently, apparently still believe the City Council will involve them in any manner in development decisions going forward. I know all about Measure LC and its not worth the paper its printed on. Its full of loopholes but thats not the point. What is more to the point is that now, with the 2028 date, those same activist residents will have to fend off possible election of Pro Airport candidates for City Council seats between now and 2028. I fully expect that this City Council will be replaced between now and then with people who are very much pro airport and anti development. 12 years is a long time and the traffic situation in Santa Monica is already the top concern. What do you suppose it will be like in another 5 years or 10 years. I predict that development policies will change drastically as the closure date draws closer in an effort to prevent virtually any development of airport property. So much so that it will make far better fiscal sense for the City to keep the airport rather than close it and develop the land into a “park”. Needless to say, if the current regime wants to indeed close the airport come 2028, its going to take a lot of work to prevent any pro airport candidates from being elected. With this deal, we have all seen first hand how much the City Council genuinely wants the involvement of the Voters when it comes to decisions about KSMO or its future.

  10. Welcome to our world in Canada. We have three levels and sometimes a forth that think general aviation is a bunch of rich asxxhoxes who fly around in warbirds making loud noises and dress up in military type garb. Our premier in Ontario raised the price of avgas two days after being elected. Her comments, in private were; those wealthy fools can afford it. Two airports fought and spent large sums of money to have wind mills removed from under the downwind path and final approach of their runways. C.O.P.A. fought long and hard with them. They won but not after wasting serious funds meant for airport improvement. Strange that the win was not because of the risk to general aviation using the airports. But the win came under the Health Act. Afraid of civilians who may be injured if an aircraft flys into a windmill. To bad about the rich s.o.b. flying the plane; the guy on the ground must be made safe. I find it interesting that both our military and commercial operators are screaming for pilots. Our commercial airports are over crowded, and being pushed to expand. And yet the very area that creates these pilots, general aviation and airports: are under siege.

  11. I live across the street. I learned to fly there. My plane is based there. I was a VP of the Santa Monica Airport Association when we sued the City after they were hosing everyone and not honoring their obligations under the 1984 Agreement. So, the fight has been for all my almost 40 years of flying out of there. We are all stunned and in shock. The betrayal by the FAA is astounding and there just has to be more to it than to which we all surmise or speculate. Such a publicly disputed and hot-button issue and no stakeholders took part?? Huerta and his clowns just set down a dangerous precedent for all airports in the USA. When push comes to shove, the FAA will fold. What bullshit!! Is Van Nuys next?? Will SMO just now get torched like Miegs?? Hey, I am a lawyer also, a litigator at that, and when you hold all the cards, why fold? Settle on my terms or we take back the airport now. WTF??? Something more is going on. .. and as we all know. . .just follow the money!!! With the height restrictions lifted, the ocean vistas will be gone in the L.A. basin, high rises will predominate. . .and the airliners will be crossing SMO at 2-3000′ on their downwind legs now that SMO will be gone. . .oh, right, they are still going to fly another 20 miles downwind and come back to LAX? Check out the approaches into JFK! At 2000′ all across Long Island. . .Ouch!! So painful to bear this news after fighting for so long and thinking the FAA had our backs!! Shame on Huerta. I still can’t believe it.

  12. SM will find what El Toro did. You can’t build parks on old airports where the soil has been contaminated for decades. But they can build high rises along the beach now that the flight restrictions will be removed. RIP KSMO

  13. This deal sets a dangerous precedent. Other cities, even those required to stay open because of grant assurances, can sue the FAA to close the airport knowing that the FAA will fold. The FAA should be protecting our aviation infrastructure rather than giving in to a bullying city council.

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