Santa Monica In The Age Of Alternative Facts


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.