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Why East Hampton and Palo Alto Matter More Than Santa Monica

Why a small Long Island town’s actions could threaten dozens of close-in city airports.

Santa Monica Airport

So far over the past year, there have been two battles between supporters of small airports and two airport authorities, who made and/or proposed disruptive changes to how their airports operate. In the Bay Area of California, Santa Clara County officials sponsored a study that found that land close to the busy general aviation airport Reid-Hillview has dangerously elevated levels of environmental lead. So, they stepped in and eliminated the sales of 100LL, the most widely used fuel by small and not-so-small piston-powered GA aircraft.

Recent reviews of that study, which, again, the County paid for, seem to show that airport leadership was, to be very kind, less than transparent with their representation of the facts. The takeaway, in fact, seems to be the opposite of what the Country claimed. Elevated levels are lead are not associated with operations at the airport. They are, in fact, not at technically dangerous levels anywhere in the area. It doesn’t seem to matter, though. Sales of 100LL have already been banned at Reid Hillview, making the airport a less desirable stop for light planes, which can’t get their preferred fuel there. In some cases, they can’t get any fuel that’s approved for use with the engines that power their aircraft.

Skeptics—and I am one of them—believe that the real goal of the County leadership is to close Reid-Hillview altogether. And one wonders if the friendly study they used to justify the discontinuation of sales of leaded aviation fuel at county airports might have been cause for the county to close the airport altogether had the findings actually found hazardous levels of lead associated with the facility.

The circumstances surrounding the actions of the town of East Hampton might pose more of a threat to aviation long term. The Town’s plan, in short, was to close the public airport and then reopen it as a publicly owned, private facility. In essence, they are withdrawing the trappings that typically surround general aviation airports, including charted approaches and regulations that limit its control over operations at the airport.

And to be fair, East Hampton is a mess, as its toney retreat homes are a popular destination for the rich and possibly famous in their jets, and because it’s a small, formerly sleepy airport located amid homes, noise is a real issue there. (And I’m not particularly noise sensitive.)

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And while it clearly didn’t make its move with the intention of creating a template for airport authorities in other areas to transform their airports (and potentially close them), that has been the effect, though East Hampton has the marked advantage of not owing the FAA any grant guarantees, as Santa Monica did and does. That Los Angeles area airport is slated to close later this decade under terms of a deal it reached with the FAA over its closure. And like East Hampton, jet aircraft operations were at the heart of its stated concerns.

Often, the goal of airport boards who decided to create strong limits on operations is to close the airport altogether. With the steep rise in prices of real estate across the country, the value of the land that close-in urban airports sit upon is stratospheric, and the elected officials who make big decisions that affect our airports are typically well connected to donors who are salivating over the prospects of developing that land.

 

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