SMO — The FAA says it plans to charge residents $100,000 to review and release data from its six-month flight path test at Santa Monica Airport.
A group of residents who said the test caused a drastic increase in flights over their homes in Sunset Park and Ocean Park requested the data after the FAA claimed the test had only a minimal effect on residents but helped reduce flight delays at SMO and LAX.
The residents, united as the group Neighbors for a Safe and Healthy Community, requested data for flights at SMO for about a nine-month period under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Skeptical that the FAA could be downplaying the number of flights directed to fly over their neighborhoods, they asked for a record of all flights told to take the test route, known as a “250 degree heading,” during the test run.
The group asked for a fee waiver, arguing their request was for a non-commercial purpose, but were denied.
In rejecting the fee waiver request, an FAA official on June 22 stated that “the disclosure of the requested information will not contribute to the understanding of the public at large,” but only to the understanding of “a narrow segment of interested persons.”
Lisa Hughes, who helped organize the FOIA request, said she was shocked by the FAA’s decision.
“This is the exact type of group that this law was set up to help,” she said. There are 1,500 people interested in the FAA’s data already, Hughes said, and her group’s e-mail list continues to grow.
The group, which has hired attorney Geoff Willis of Sheppard Mullin to assist them, is planning to appeal the FAA’s decision this week.
It’s important to obtain the data, Hughes said, to prove that far more planes were directed to fly over Santa Monica homes during the flight path test than previously. The group believes the data would help its cause should the FAA attempt to make the test route permanent.
In defending the agency’s price tag for the information, FAA Spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said it would take an estimated 1,100 hours of work to compile the requested data.
“It’s a tremendous amount of data,” she said. “It has to be carefully screened to eliminate that type of data that is not releasable for security reasons.”
In its response to the request, the FAA said it was still unclear if all of the data the residents were seeking was available. To compile just 45 days worth of flight data would cost $99,630, the agency said.
To determine how many planes took the 250 degree heading, a professional air traffic controller would have to listen to 24 hours of audio tape from SMO’s control tower for each day of the period for which information was requested, Bergen said. The cost to listen to the recordings is $82 per hour, she said.
“It’s very unusual that a request would be this expensive,” she added.
The flight path test, which required pilots of small piston-powered planes to take a 250 degree heading out of SMO, resulted in thousands of noise complaints from residents before it ended in June.
The FAA said fewer than 10 flights per day were re-directed because of the test route, but residents reported a huge spike in overhead air traffic, with some people recording 20 planes over their homes per hour during the test.
The FAA is expected to release results of the test in August and is yet to determine whether it will seek to make the test route permanent. But the agency stated in an interim report on the test that it had significantly reduced flight delays at both SMO and LAX by diverting smaller planes out of airspace they had shared with jets.
The high cost of the flight path data, Hughes said, doesn’t add up, considering the FAA has said it is reviewing data on the test before deciding how to proceed. She said they should review all flight data from the test period and simply turn over the information they’re using in their own review to the public.
Bergen, though, said the FAA has to comb through the data to expunge confidential information — such as movements of Air Force One or military air craft — before releasing data to the public, which is a time-consuming process.