CITY HALL — Flight school owners and residents squared off in a sometimes contentious workshop Monday night meant to “begin a conversation” about how the two groups could live in peace.
It got off to a rough start.
The relationship between the six flight schools that operate out of Santa Monica Airport and the residents of Santa Monica, Mar Vista, Venice and portions of West Los Angeles that live nearby have been tense, particularly since the Aug. 29 accident when a student pilot using a plane from Justice Aviation crashed into a house on Navy Street.
The workshop had been planned prior to the accident, but galvanized the community, causing newly-appointed Chair Richard Brown to thank the two flight school representatives who presented for showing up to a “hostile environment.”
“I understand there was some trepidation,” he said.
The evening was formatted to allow three presenters — Sunset Park resident John Fairweather, Joe Justice of Justice Aviation and Jay Elder of American Flyers — to present their sides of the issue.
Fairweather presented information from studies conducted by himself and other residents armed with binoculars and decibel meters to demonstrate that 61 percent of SMO’s air traffic stems from flight school activity.
That number is not available from federal statistics, which break down the numbers of take offs and landings by other criteria.
Some of Fairweather’s numbers are blatantly wrong, contended pilot Howard Israel.
Some of Fairweather’s data had Israel’s plane landing at an inaccurate time and completing moves Israel swears he had never done with the plane.
The issue could be solved with a request to the Federal Aviation Administration, but it would be pricey, Israel said.
“It’s easy to do, but it will cost $6,000 to $8,000,” Israel added, challenging Fairweather to bet him the cost of the public records request who was right — Israel’s logs, or Fairweather’s observations.
Either way, residents contend that the planes are noisy and fly constantly over their homes between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., when they are legally allowed to do so.
At the same time, the only fuel approved for use in the airplanes is leaded fuel, which residents say adds to general pollution as well as dangerous levels of lead in the blood.
A similar charge has been levied by California State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who has asked the state to investigate the air pollution and lead levels in the blood of those that live around SMO.
The presence of a large number of student pilots traversing the airspace over heavily-populated areas also stirred fears of the consequences of another crash.
Justice and Elder countered that the flight schools had the right to operate under both federal and local law, and that each school did its best to keep noise down to a minimum.
Pilots try to follow a voluntary flight path meant to minimize the impact of the noise on residents, Justice said.
Many times, if a pilot flies directly over homes, it’s because the control tower instructed them to, often to get out of the way of a coming jet.
He also noted that even as the amount of traffic, and therefore noise, decreases as a result of the weak economy, the number of complaints filed by residents has only increased.
Elder, whose company helps people get commercial licenses, argued that pilots need to train in the kinds of areas they will eventually be flying in so that they can handle the situation when they’re flying much larger planes.
To the point of noise, he wasn’t sympathetic.
“Do you buy a house next to the train tracks and complain about the train?” he asked.
It is true that at least Santa Monica residents near the airport reap a major cost savings on their homes compared to the rest of the city.
According to Altos Research, the median home value in Santa Monica is $1.68 million compared to $1.2 million for a home in Sunset Park.
It creates an opportunity, said real estate agent Kate Bransfield.
“Houses around the airport still very much sell because Santa Monica and Santa Monica schools,” Bransfield said.
Price aside, the question of flight school operations comes down to a quality of life issue, said Commissioner Stephen Mark.
“The question is can you conceive of a way for you to operate your schools differently to ameliorate what the people are describing?” Mark asked.
It might be possible to reduce the number of hours that students can fly by requesting that they come in before curfew, Justice said.
“But we need to make sure we don’t push ourselves out of business, because we have a place here, too,” Justice said.
Flight schools are not new to the airport.
Airport Director Bob Trimborn presented a truncated history of SMO, noting that in its general aviation heyday, there were 350,000 take offs and landings and up to 14 to 20 planes flying loops around the airport at any given time.
In 2010, that number has dropped to 104,950, the lowest point it’s been in a decade.
“The number of flight schools is based on market demand,” Trimborn said.
Commissioner Ofer Grossman offered another perspective.
“This is not by accident,” he said. “It’s by design.”
Grossman said that at least two of the approved flight schools had enjoyed support from members of the community that had hoped that an influx of slower, smaller biplanes would clog up the runway and make the area less hospitable to jets, the hot issue at the time.
“Now, the tide has turned,” Grossman said.