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

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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. 

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