This essay is in response to three recent submissions to the SMDP by airport proponents. One is the May 10-11 column by Joe Bates in which he addresses my column of May 7, as does Mr. Howard Israel on May 16. The other is a response to a July 2 letter written by Reynold Dacon commenting to a June 28 letter by Brian Bland, in which he questions assertions about SMO job generation.
The Aviation Community’s Attitude
Mr. Bates’ and Mr. Israel’s contention is that the Airport Commission members, because they are not expert in aviation, lack competence. According to the City Charter, members of the committee need to be “qualified electors of the City, none of whom shall hold any paid office or employment in the City government.” The Airport Commission is not required to have sitting aviation experts. It is charged to serve only in an “advisory” capacity to the City Council in matters pertaining to the airport “to the extent that they may affect the City”, which, to me, means basically to give the community’s input on how the Santa Monica Airport’s (SMO) operations affect local residents and, by inference, to work with the aviation community on addressing community concerns. It is SMO’s management who, more often than not, interface with the aviation community to address those concerns. The results are often unsatisfactory to the residents, usually due to the FAA’s (Federal Aviation Administration) hegemonic control of the land.
Although there have been two commissioners that I know of with aviation backgrounds in the past six years and who contributed constructively to our deliberations, perhaps the reason there haven’t been more aviators appointed to the commission is best illustrated by Mr.Bates’ and Mr. Israel’s attitudes in their writing. They are dismissive, condescending and often insulting when referring to Commission members. And this attitude seems to be shared by many aviators.
It’s as if the aviation community feels that its priorities trump all else and we, the inexpert public, just display our pathetic ignorance with any criticism of SMO policy. That’s simply not true and beside the point. Aviation at SMO is part of a complex urban system in which we all live and in which everything interacts, creating inevitable tradeoffs. The sulphurous congestion of the 405 or the noxious din of LAX (Los Angeles Airport) are good examples of those tradeoffs and, as bad as they are, they are essential to the region’s economic viability. SMO simply does not rise to that standard. As important as it has been to our history, it now serves a tiny fraction of the population and it is the squandering of a huge public asset, adding air and noise pollution and heat ‚Äî it is a gigantic asphalt-covered heat island ‚Äî to an already stressed ecosystem. Pilot training, medical flight services, private jet travel and the jobs that go with them can be conducted at any number of airports in the L.A. Basin.
And, by the way, a good counter example of expert criticism of public policy is the Urban Sense column that appears in the SMDP (Santa Monica Daily Press). It’s authors are a group of architects and designers known collectively as SMa.r.t, who are often deeply critical of Planning Commission and Council decisions but who engage in a public dialogue that treats opposing views seriously while offering thoughtful alternatives (with which I don’t always agree). I know of no such forum penned by aviators. In my five years on the Airport Commission, I can count on one hand the pilots who have come forward to engage in any sort of collaborative dialogue with the commission.
The often quoted economic numbers supporting the airport status quo come mainly from a study done at the behest of the City in 2011 by HR&A, an economic and policy consultancy based in Santa Monica. The truth is that the HR&A study is a political document that was created to suit the agenda of airport proponents in the city government at the time – not “facts” generated by impartial analysts. HR&A based their entire set of conclusions on a metric that was off by 80 percent, stating that the “airport campus” (their term) generated 894 jobs, representing 42 business sectors, which contained 177 businesses. This amazingly high job/sector/business count was arrived at, apparently, by counting all the tenants housed on the “campus” – a small portion of which, I would venture to say, need an adjacent airport to conduct business. In fact, 178 of this 893 total are categorized as “transport by air’, which is in line with what long time observers know to be the case – jobs dependent on aviation activities. Granted, those jobs represent people buying lunches, running errands and possibly even living in Santa Monica but it’s a far cry from the 895 “direct” jobs estimated by HR&A. Using HR&A’s IMPLAN (an economic data analysis tool) multiplier of $166,000 of generated output per aviation job on the 178 figure adds up to about $29.5 million (178 x $166,000), not the $275 million being quoted by airport proponents. In a local economy that, again according to HR&A, outputs $13.9 billion yearly, $29.5 million is not nothing. But it is not a driver of the wider community’s prosperity. (Allowing for the few individuals – see Harrison Ford – who may work and fly out of SMO, increase “direct” jobs to 200 and the output goes up to $33.2 million, still a whopping $241.8 million less than HR&A’s projection.) And then there is the wonderfully vague “finding” of “estimated visitor spending by arriving air passengers who stay in Santa Monica” and the “2.5 million annually in arriving air passenger expenditures in Santa Monica” that they supposedly spend. The obfuscation of the sentences containing these quotes is positively breathtaking. So no, I don’t believe that the study’s conclusions are accurate or “still stand”, as Mr. Bates seems to and they do not represent an “annoying little fact” as Mr. Dacon puts it.
Although it wasn’t tasked to do so (and evidence of its narrow political intent), the report also does not present any plausible alternative scenarios such as parkland or an educational campus or some other low density mixture of uses, just comparisons to shopping centers, hotels and office buildings, as if those are the only useful projections. It also lacks a true cost benefit analysis, factoring in the noise and air pollution an airport of this type generates, affecting the health of the surrounding communities. Like many documents of this kind that feign objectivity, the HR&A study uses some plausible numbers supported by a few grand distortions that throw the whole thing out of whack and its mundane analogies encourage a pinched vision of what could be, discouraging innovative and sustainable urban planning.
The Sky Is Falling Scenario
Airport proponents have used up a lot of ink warning us of the dire consequences of pulling SMO off the grid. They seem to be promoting the assumption that airlines can save substantial amounts of fuel and time by entering the LAX inbound approach pattern from the north, lower and sooner than they do now. This would save a few more miles than the present practice of entering the pattern further inland. The result would put large airliners, they say, as low as 2,500 feet above our homes, as opposed to their present altitude of around 6,000 feet. “Several airlines have already petitioned the FAA for route changes,” according to Mr. Bates. He must know somebody, as the City has queried the FAA’s Operations Support Group specifically about this and the response has been totally noncommittal. The FAA, of course, is not above dissembling in this kind of situation but why, if new routes are requested, would such a change be granted? It can’t make life easier for LAX traffic control or safer for the rest on us and it can’t save that much fuel. Or are we going to be punished by the FAA for taking away an airport? Not an impossibility but pretty far fetched. Pilots are not the FAA’s only constituency.
As for building heights increasing in what is now the flight path, what can be said to such baseless rumors? The outbound path is a golf course and an established suburban neighborhood. Except for existing pockets of dense commercial development, the inbound cone is pretty much developed as well. Again, it’s mostly established residential zoning with neighborhood services taking up the commercial space.
Another popular meme lurking in the mind of the electorate whenever the council makes an unpopular development decision is the Developer/Council Conspiracy Theory. Although I understand some of the logic, I too am not particularly happy with the growth patterns in the city. I am also an avid supporter of Residocracy. The developer PACs that pop up at election time and help defray the cost of being elected to the City Council also make me very uneasy. There’s at least a perception of the quid pro quo in this that can’t be ignored. (In fact, I am in favor of publicly financed elections, some form of which exist in New York City, Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico surprisingly enough.) But Residocracy had the right idea. They figured out a way to directly influence the Council, mobilized a raft of people and achieved their immediate end. Messy, grass roots democracy is supposed to work like this. So, all of this dark grumbling about developers and council members in cahoots with each other is just that: dark grumbling, which just further discourages people from being politically engaged. That a national lobbying group like AOPA (Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association) can use their resources to hire the law firm Reed and Davis to craft an initiative, then have three residents of the city file it and then hire Arno Petition Consultants to cynically game the California initiative system with swarms of paid petition gatherers, exploiting voters who think, no matter what, that signing a petition is empowering, is a testament to the power of the 0.5 percent of the flying public that wants SMO to remain a livery stable for their jet limos. Paying people to collect signatures using half-truths and deliberate distortions, while still legal for some reason, is just a step away from outright vote buying.
This community has its work cut out for it. The airport and the land it sits on belong to the people of Santa Monica. It is now an outpost of the Federal Government favoring moneyed interests, who use its illustrious past and dark, unsubstantiated rumors, as a cover for their real agenda: not having to walk through a metal detector at LAX like the rest of us.
Peter Donald Vice Chair, Airport Commission