SMO — The Santa Monica Airport took the national stage Friday when Congressman Henry Waxman got an amendment passed through the House instructing the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct “good faith” talks with City Hall.
Waxman attached the amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2011, which passed the House of Representatives 223 to 196. The Senate has yet to approve the bill.
Waxman specifically targeted local concerns surrounding the lack of runway safety areas at the end of the two-way runway despite densely populated neighborhoods with some homes as close as 250 feet from the airport itself.
“The amendment I offer today is simple and straightforward,” Waxman said Friday. “It urges the FAA to continue its discussion with the City of Santa Monica to identify a meaningful solution to address serious safety concerns at the Santa Monica Airport.”
Although the amendment does not include specific instructions or any kind of framework for future discussions between the FAA and City Hall, it “puts the FAA on notice that Congress is dissatisfied and wants to see this issue addressed and resolved once and for all,” Waxman said Tuesday.
The FAA and City Hall have been negotiating on how to address the lack of runway safety areas at the airport for many years. SMO predates the administration, and as a result, its runway was grandfathered in despite the fact that it does not live up to FAA guidelines.
In an attempt to address safety concerns, the FAA put forward an offer to create an engineered material arresting system, or EMAS, at one end of the SMO runway in 2007.
The system was meant to stop planes at speeds up to 70 knots that fouled up a take off and prevent them from going into the densely populated neighborhood beyond the runway.
In a 2008 letter, the FAA claimed that the system would cover 97 percent of the airport’s operations, including 90 percent of the large jet craft, called cateogory C and D jets, that City Hall later tried to ban outright.
The FAA later reneged on that offer, which City Hall had declared insufficient because it only covered one end of the runway, said Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager on government relations.
Conversation between the two entities was minimal after the FAA filed an injunction in April 2008 against a Santa Monica ordinance banning the largest jets from using the airport.
Waxman had introduced an amendment similar to this one in 2009, without success.
This year, a decade since his activism on the part of Santa Monica began, the timing was right.
The end of litigation between City Hall and the FAA dovetailed with the Reauthorization Bill, which “created a timely opportunity to bring this issue back to the fore,” Waxman said.
The effort was well-received by Santa Monica officials who celebrated it.
“Safety is the prime issue at the airport,” said SMO manager Robert Trimborn. “I’m pleased that the congressman has included his amendment to the FAA Reauthorization to work with the city on this issue.”
Mayor Richard Bloom viewed the amendment as a healthy step in moving past the same old arguments to find creative solutions to the safety problems.
“I think that the city is by necessity taking a new look at where we’re coming from on this issue because litigation has not been successful,” Bloom said. “The FAA, at the same time, should have more than enough motivation to want to engage in good faith discussions.”
To a degree, those “good faith discussions” have already begun.
Last week, City Manager Rod Gould and City Attorney Marsha Moutrie met with members of the FAA to discuss the visioning process for the future of the airport begun by the council in February, as well as to reinforce community objections against a change in flight path which forced more planes over Santa Monica homes.
While community members were happy to see Waxman addressing the problems at SMO, some felt that the amendment didn’t go far enough.
At no point did it mention pollution dangers, said Martin Rubin, member of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution.
The group met with Waxman in September 2010 to encourage him to address the issue.
“It was not enough, it was a weak amendment,” Rubin said. “What we asked the congressman for when we met with him last year, and he seemed agreeable, was to make a rule that would set a minimum distance between where jets can be blasting off and where homes were.”
That minimum distance would mean that jets would have to move further down the runway, which probably isn’t enough space for a safe take off for jets, Rubin acknowledged.
“It will get rid of the jets, the convenience travel for the well to do and even some congressmen,” Rubin said.
Waxman did request an environmental impact study in September for a flight path change that the FAA experimented with for six months, which lessened the amount of wait time for planes to take off, and prevented polluting idling on the runway.
Santa Monicans protested, however, because the new path, which changed the flight angle from 210 degrees to 250, sent more planes over Santa Monica homes.
The FAA has yet to complete a full analysis of the information it gathered during the six-month test.