Santa Monica In The Age Of Alternative Facts

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Now that it has been established that we live in a world of regular facts and alternative facts, the morass of confusion over the announced closing of the much-fought-over Santa Monica Airport comes into perfect focus. As far as this airport is concerned, there aren’t so much alternative facts as multiple parallel realities. I think even if you live there, it’s not possible to discern the right thing to do.

In this space, I’m an aviation opinion writer and on the subject of airport closures, I’m expected to default to auto-preach and thunder about the FAA’s back-alley decision to allow the city to first shorten the airport’s runway and second close it by 2028. But I’m not much of a choir leader because I believe keeping an airport open in the wrong place may be bad public policy in the service of what is, after all, just another special interest: general aviation.

I’ve been to Santa Monica exactly once and have flown over it several times. It’s stunning how this strip of pavement survives, encroached by a relentless tide of urban development. Like clockwork since the day AVweb started, we have published multiple Santa Monica stories. Google offers up more than 18 million hits on everything combined and in the distant back pages you’ll find a trail littered with court fights, FAA decrees, city council intrigue and vocal pilots. Our story over the weekend details the latest development which was—suspiciously—engineered over the weekend between the FAA and the city. It allows the city to whack 1500 feet off the runway and eventually close it in 2028. Aviation alphabets and local interests were unaware of it.

Personally, I don’t see how this was ever not going to happen, given the value of the real estate and the overwhelming economic pressure on it to deliver more of a return than an airport ever could. As pilots, we’re good at tuning out these larger considerations in favor of our own interests. But I like to think in addition to being a pilot, I’m also a citizen capable of weighing pros and cons that may affect my own fortunes. I also like to think I know the greater good when I see it.

With Santa Monica, the alternative facts kick into high gear. For every article like this one that provides a glimpse into what some neighbors think, you see a counterargument from airport supporters who are just as sure they’re right. As pilots, after all, we are perfectly capable of being our own worst enemies if we argue that neighbors knew the airport was there when they moved in. True, but they also have a voice in whether it stays there. As the Air & Space article points out, some residents didn’t mind the airport until jet operations ticked up. When a Gulfsteam blows over your picnic table, you tend to notice.

A few years ago, a cabal of irate neighbors elected council people to curtail or close my home airport and, at the time, I wondered then if that was good public policy. Did it represent the will of the community? It turns out that it did not and the FAA did a stellar job of keeping the council from gaining an inch at the airport’s expense. Is this true at Santa Monica, too? How could we possibly tell? I don’t see the FAA’s decision as a sellout so much as the kind of negotiation regulatory agencies do. On the other hand, I don’t like that it was done quietly on a weekend. What don’t we know about this deal?

I’m not so sure this perspective from the local paper is any more right than anything else I’ve read. The author concludes that FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, an Obama appointee, made the decision to close SMO as a slap in the face to Republicans and that President Trump will reverse it. The reason is that Trump will want to punish the rich liberals in Santa Monica by sticking them with a stinky, noisy airport.

The flaw in that theory is that the rich Hollywood liberals who railed against Trump base their jets at SMO and closing it would deny them access. Or maybe just shortening the runway would chase the jets away, but keep piston aircraft active. That might actually be a net plus for the community, since the pistons are quieter. Either way, nothing is happening toward closure until beyond 2028.     

How about an alternative fact theory? Trump actually ordered the closing because he’s a real estate guy and knows an opportunity when he sees one. Nice place for a hotel or a resort, no? Or maybe a rich donor asked for a little payback for as surely as I sit here typing, not everyone in Santa Monica is liberal. This could be just as likely as Trump reversing Huerta. Or not. Watch closely to what happens with the runway shortening to see what’s next.

Meanwhile, my successor will be stuck writing Santa Monica stories for at least the next decade, maybe longer. I hope I don’t have to.

Comments (25)

Your successor? Is there a story there? Say it ain't so, Josie.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 2, 2017 8:55 PM    Report this comment

Successor? That better be an alternative fact...

Posted by: Dave Miller | February 2, 2017 9:41 PM    Report this comment

Hmmm ... successor?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 2, 2017 9:54 PM    Report this comment

Was there ever a meeting held between the residents and the airport operators to discuss the noise problem ? The old bromide 'the airport was here first' doesn't work but the other side of the coin is that the jobs that will be lost are quality, high skilled jobs. I don't trust city governments to do what they say; I believe an 'Art Park' will last about two years before the developers line city hall's members' pockets and the high rises start coming in.

Posted by: Andy Kopetzky | February 3, 2017 1:39 AM    Report this comment

Gees, guys. Just saying I won't still be doing this in 2028.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 3, 2017 3:52 AM    Report this comment

According to an attorney who lives in Santa Monica and posts on the AOPA Forum, in the January 28th press conference at which the deal was announced, the mayor said that the FAA first approached the city about negotiating a settlement about a month before, so this is not something that happened over a weekend. It also indicates that the process started about three weeks before Trump had any authority in the matter.

Posted by: RICHARD PALM | February 3, 2017 6:26 AM    Report this comment

Once again the FAA comes to the rescue and once again it is not for the benefit of GA. KSMO is a neat place. There are many other airports like it across the country that are surrounded by dense housing. Now the FAA has set a precedent and sold out aviation interests.

It sure looks to me like a parting middle finger by the idiot formerly in charge of the FAA. I think that the FAA's recent mindset has been anti GA. The general public does not have access to railroads, so why should they have access to the airways? Leave the sky to the airlines and large cargo carriers.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | February 3, 2017 8:51 AM    Report this comment

"Leave the sky to the airlines and large cargo carriers." And package-delivery drones - gotta have that pizza by halftime, Leo!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 3, 2017 8:57 AM    Report this comment

Since it was a given that the airport was closing the minute its federal funds obligation ended anyway, this is probably as good a deal as could be expected. The shortened runway will mean jet traffic (the real killer PR/annoyance problem at SMO) will be gone, and "little" GA has a hopefully low-drama wind-down period that at least extends the airport life a little.

It will actually be interesting to see how the operation plays out financially. Without the jets the big bucks SMO has been living on are gone. Will there actually be enough $$ moving to keep the lights on until 2028? In any case, the deal merely puts some structure on an ending that has long been inevitable.

Posted by: John Wilson | February 3, 2017 9:03 AM    Report this comment

What about the "airport in perpetuity" clause supposedly decreed during the land release to Santa Monica after WW2? Has that been nullified? It seems that would prevent SMO from ever closing regardless of any 20-year grant agreements..

By comparison, I doubt they would release National Park land after it had been established as a National Park. My understanding is that it also enjoys a "perpetuity" clause.

Posted by: A Richie | February 3, 2017 9:22 AM    Report this comment

You've put forward a good reason why cities should consider moving airline traffic farther out. The people affected are the people making the the decision. OTOH, GA airports are desired by a small minority who will almost always be the lesser good until they don't exist anywhere near a majority of the people's homes.

Our last election foretells a big challenge facing this country. Our mega cities are now driving much of our policies. If only rural and exurb voters can get to GA airports, it won't be too long before GA travel actually is just for the super rich.

Posted by: Eric Warren | February 3, 2017 9:26 AM    Report this comment

Jets, man.

But seriously, perhaps Santa Monica would have survived if there was some buffer between it and the residents. It looks like the town completely enveloped the airport, so much so SMO looks completely out of place.

Posted by: Joshua Waters | February 3, 2017 11:05 AM    Report this comment

" It's stunning how this strip of pavement survives, encroached by a relentless tide of urban development." Has anyone ever flown over LAX and looked down?

Starting way back in the early 70's, Los Angeles World Airports envisioned a replacement mega airport in Palmdale immediately adjacent to the east side of the exiting Air Force Plant 42 (PMD). By eminent domain and coercion, a total of 17,750 acres of alfalfa growing land was purchased at a cost of $100M to the taxpayers. The airport was envisioned to handle 100 million PAX and SST's. It never was developed because it was too far from the population centers of LA and environs. By comparison, LAX occupies just 3,500 acres and had little room to grow. It seemed like a great -- albeit long lead -- idea at the time.

The USAF at Edwards AFB and Plant 42 didn't want the airport conflicting with their missions so they allowed construction of a small airline terminal and a limited number of daily flights directly into USAF Plant 42. Over the years, many airlines tried but could never make a profit without Federal subsidies. Today, even that facility was given up by LAX and given to the City of Palmdale; it remains dormant despite greatly improved train service to the area which could make it viable. My point being that airports too far from the urban cores they serve don't do very well. Now they're envisioning using 4,000 acres of this land for a 100MW solar electric generation facility. So much for that grandiose idea of a new large replacement airport. Can you spell Peotone?

The folks in LA want airports but not in THEIR backyard. They want airports but don't want to travel too far to get to them. "Wrong place." Where, then, is the 'right' place? If the problem was jet noise, why couldn't accommodations be made? Once SMO is gone, like Meigs, it's gone forever.
As far as I am concerned, SMO is a part of the regional transportation network but the folks who live nearby or the developers who want the land are being just as myopic as the GA pilots you claim are likewise being one-sided. LA County is 10 million people. They need all forms of transportation and SMO is a part of it all. Besides, how will the rich Hollywood types get to Idaho?

It's no darned wonder they call the place LaLaLand.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 3, 2017 11:57 AM    Report this comment

What am I or you missing?
You say it is the real estate value that is driving the termination.
Over the years and recently, the plan is to turn the area into a park. That is what has been sold to the public, regulators etc.

Posted by: Dale Rush | February 3, 2017 12:48 PM    Report this comment

12 acres of it will be park, the rest--215 acres--will be something else. Frankly, I'll be damn surprised if even the park makes it.

I suspect that's hundreds of millions if not billions in potential development. Airports always struggle against this calculus. A new version of Century City seems to be in the betting pool. The locals may exchange jet noise for traffic congestion.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 3, 2017 1:07 PM    Report this comment

There is a universal truth about airports, that development follows the airport, not the otherway around. Back in the 1970's, when the city of Houston moved its main airport from Hobby to IAH, everyone crabbed about it being too far away. Today, IAH is completely surrounded by the city. Fortunately, the close-in neighbors are industrial, so noise complaints are few. When Denver moved its airport from Stapleton to the new DIA, everyone complained it was too remote. Fly in today and the city is slowly moving that direction. SMO is just an earlier example of that phenomenon. The mistake they made was allowing residential development up to the fenceline instead of zoning commercial or industrial around the airport. The city may make a park in the land recoverd from the shorter runway, but in 2029, the park will be gone and high-rise development will ensue.

Posted by: John McNamee | February 3, 2017 1:16 PM    Report this comment

Years ago I flew Challeger 604s in there. I felt it was a bit dicey given the overlying class B, continuous TA alerts from the TCAS, and a runway too close to 604 margins for my comfort level.Ironically, I fly an Airbus 320 into Burbank these days but that's another story. I never saw many recips operating there. It was always jets. .

Posted by: SHANNON FORREST | February 3, 2017 2:07 PM    Report this comment

We must learn from the SMO closure. Be proactive and put our fight into the encroachment of non-industrial zoning. Look at your airport and call the alphabet groups now before residential zoning is established.

Maybe it's too late to fight or change zoning, start a campaign to relocate. We have the precedents set now.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | February 3, 2017 2:27 PM    Report this comment

"The locals may exchange jet noise for traffic congestion." I've lived near SMO for over 25 years, I've witnessed significant ground traffic congestion for decades and is evergrowing - ask Musk. LaLaLand indeed. Larry is correct.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 3, 2017 5:58 PM    Report this comment

One of the hazardous attitudes is Resignation. We should not be resigned to any airport closing because if we do, they will go away. We can't save them all, but we can make it very difficult for the people trying to to expedite their demise.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | February 3, 2017 8:49 PM    Report this comment

All this talk about closing 'Clover Field' prompted me to do hours of research about the SoCal area airports. I lived in the High Desert for 27 years so it was fun to remind myself of all the history.

I rediscovered the website which shows a plethora of airports now mostly gone. I'd urge anyone interested in the history of the area to visit that website. LOTs of good stuff.

What a difference 50 years makes. In the late 60's -- when Boeing was working on the SST -- a man made island directly offshore Santa Monica was envisioned to handle the SST's and keep the noise away from the natives. It would have included an underwater subway back to the mainland. The above website has some great info about this. It was to be called Santa Monica Island airport.

I had forgotten that the first circumnavigation of the world flight using Douglas built DWC's took off from and returned to SMO (although the official start / stop point was Sand Point, WA). The DC-1 through 7 plus B-18 Bolo and thousands of C-47 and C-54 aircraft were built there. In 1958, Douglas asked the City to lengthen the runway so that DC-8's could be built and operate from the field but the City refused. So Douglas closed the plant that had employed 44,000 workers during WWII and moved it to Long Beach. First they wouldn't lengthen the runway and now they're shortening it to kill it off. Wonderful. Maybe this is just a mirror image of what's happening to GA?

Just to the south of SMO was the Hughes airport, now also closed and being turned into residential and commercial use. That airport was where the HK-1 Hercules flying boat was built among other notable projects. Soon, SMO will resemble that demise and become a historical aviation footnote.

As I was doing all the reading, I kept hearing the 'thump' of the song, "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen in my head. What a sad and ignominious end to an historic airport. Shame on you, City of Santa Monica.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 4, 2017 3:51 AM    Report this comment

The "perpetuity" clause which bound the City of Santa Monica to forever operate an airport on the then-federally leased land has been the subject of a huge amount of legal weaseling in multiple actions. The remedy for failure to continue operating the airport was that the feds could "revert" their transfer of the property rights.

One major argument used by the City seems to be that the actual title to the land itself has always been in the name of the City, and that the "property" transferred to it was the lease improvements (buildings, runway, etc.). Therefore, when the FAA "federal funding" hold on the airport expired they maintain they could shut the airport down and the feds could, we presume, take their runway if they wished. Another major argument has been over the 12-year statute of limitations on challenging the agreement, with the City claiming they still have the right to challenge, saying the clock only started in 2008 when FAA issued a show-cause order, and the feds holding that the 12-year clock has long run out because it started when the City accepted the agreement in 1948.

While you might feel the language and intent of the agreement was clear enough, such things are subject to reinterpretation at the whim of a sympathetic judicial system (think "...the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.") Probably more importantly, I think the federal government feels they have done their part and it is now time to retire from the field of battle.

Posted by: John Wilson | February 4, 2017 9:39 AM    Report this comment

A Richie: In America, "perpetuity" actually means "until enough rich guys want something different". Could be the near future, or some time later, but nothing in America is ever done "in perpetuity".

Posted by: Ken Keen | February 4, 2017 9:44 AM    Report this comment

"I think the federal government feels they have done their part and it is now time to retire from the field of battle."

Declare victory and go home? Where/when have we heard that one before?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 4, 2017 1:08 PM    Report this comment

It is hard to remain agreeable, apolitical and serene. My new year's resolution faltered. But after much pandering, I'm on the mend, there is hope. Let SMO fade away, the FAA did the best they could, don't worry about the wall. "Declare victory and get the hell out of Vietnam".

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 5, 2017 2:10 PM    Report this comment

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