A thin, wispy contrail overhead and the nearby rumbling of plane engines served as a backdrop for Saturday’s protest against the Santa Monica Airport. About 300 people from surrounding neighborhoods gathered in a corner of Santa Monica Business Park to voice their frustration over a deal struck between the City and the FAA to shorten the runway and potentially close the airport for good.
To many activists who have been fighting the jet noise and flight patterns of the airport for decades, twelve years is too long to wait for a closure, especially one that is not guaranteed. While the settlement frees the City of all existing FAA contracts in 2029, it does not guarantee closure.
“Justice delayed is justice is denied,” Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin told the crowd. Bonin represents the neighborhoods of Venice, Mar Vista and West Los Angeles with are under the flight path. He was not included in settlement negotiations with the FAA.
“To keep this airport open for twelve more years is wrong,” he said.
When Santa Monica’s City Attorney and Manager unveiled the consent decree a week earlier, they knew both sides of the debate over the airport would be unhappy. Nonetheless, the FAA is not known for capitulating to community pressure. The unprecedented deal allowed both sides to avoid years of litigation and a substantial amount of risk.
On Friday, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta defended the consent decree to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a group representing thousands of pilots. Huerta admitted he was nervous a judge could rule in Santa Monica’s favor, which pushed him to the negotiating table.
“There was a very real possibility that the City could prevail and … the industry would be confronted with a situation where the City could close the airport immediately,” Huerta told Tom Haines, AOPA’s senior vice president of media and outreach. “That certainly incentivized us to enter into a conversation to see if we can get extended operations there.”
“We did not receive any political pressure to point (discussions) in one direction or another,” he said.
Attorneys for the City had the opposite concern, that a judge could decide the airport had to be operated in perpetuity, leaving them with limited options to reduce air traffic at SMO. When the decree came before the City Council, it narrowly passed with a four to three vote.
Mayor Ted Winterer braved the boos and jeers of the crowd Saturday to defend his vote for the settlement deal.
“We will, in six months, shorten that runway to 3,500 feet,” Winterer said, adding the City believes the shorter runway will reduced air traffic by 44 percent. He told the crowd flights will be completely suspended during construction, giving neighbors temporary relief from noise and fumes. Winterer went so far as to say the City will exploit every loophole available to reduce air traffic.
But to neighbors with homes under the flight path, the assurances from the Mayor are not good enough. They are concerned about lead in aircraft fuel.
“I didn’t even notice there was an airport until the jets,” Katherine Newmark said who lives on nearby Navy Street. “It’s the noise. It’s toxic. Our patio furniture is constantly being sprayed by jet fuel.”
Because of those same concerns, Congresswoman Karen Bass said she could not support the settlement. Bass was not at the rally but sent a letter to the organizer, Marty Rubin who read it to the crowd:
“Twenty-nine years after lead was banned from auto fuel it can still be found in aviation gas and studies have shown that children living near airports have elevated levels of lead in their blood,” said the letter. “Lead is a known neurotoxin with no safe exposure level, especially for developing children.”
Bass represents the 37th Congressional district covering an area of Los Angeles adjacent to Santa Monica.
While the consent decree puts an end to some litigation, it has refueled the debate. In his AOPA interview, Huerta suggested the aviation should spend the next decade selling the airport better to the community, opening the possibility that public opinion could sway toward keeping the airport open.
It is exactly that kind of calculation that has activists and the City Councilmembers who voted against the settlement concerned. By the end of the 2020’s, the make-up of city leadership will have changed. In the meantime, the current City Council will look to exploit loopholes in the agreement and within contracts at the airport to make flying in and out of SMO less appealing.
Longtime Councilmember Tony Vazquez encouraged the crowd to keep up the pressure on their elected leaders. He was one of the three members to vote against the deal.
“We need a fourth vote,” Vazquez told the cheering crowd.