TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT? A personal jet flys over Bundy Drive on its way to the Santa Monica Airport on Monday afternoon. Attorneys for City Hall and the FAA squarred off Monday in a hearing in Long Beach over a City Council ban on jet aircraft. (photo by Brandon Wise)

LONG BEACH — A local ordinance banning the fastest and largest jets from Santa Monica Airport — a law that is being challenged by the Federal Aviation Administration — is reasonable in its intent to protect residents who live just a short distance from the runway, according to a former federal official.

“What the Santa Monica government has done is what the FAA should’ve done to ensure safety at the airport,” said Jim Hall, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, who served from 1993 to 2001.

Hall was among a handful of witnesses called to testify Monday during the opening day of the FAA’s hearing into the legality of a 2008 Santa Monica ordinance that banned categories C and D jets from the airport, addressing concerns that a plane would one day overshoot the runway and land on homes just 300 feet away.

The hearing, which is expected to conclude by the end of the week, is being held in response to a nearly six-year-long FAA internal investigation that ruled the ordinance would put City Hall in violation of its federal obligations to the agency. The administrative review started in 2002 when the Airport Commission recommended the City Council adopt a ban on the fastest jets, but was placed on hold when city and federal officials began negotiating several runway safety enhancement options. The investigation resumed when the ordinance passed in March of ‘08 after City Hall and the FAA failed to reach a compromise on safety enhancements.

A ruling is expected no later than May 14.

“We feel we have a very strong case and we’re moving for safety and that can’t be a bad thing,” said Lance Gams, the deputy city attorney.

Just a few witnesses were called on the opening day, including Edward Bennett, a former employee of the FAA, and Hall, who was appointed to the NTSB in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton.

Today he is partner of Hall and Associates LLC and has consulted City Hall on FAA matters.

Shortly after the ordinance passed, Hall signed a declaration stating that without federal standards for runway safety areas, which SMO lacks, categories C and D jets should not be permitted to operate because of the risk of serious injuries.

“FAA should apply its own runway safety rules,” he said. “In absence of that, the Santa Monica (ordinance) is reasonable in (protecting) the safety of its own citizens.”

But as attorneys for the FAA pointed out during the round of questioning, Hall does not hold an engineering degree, nor does he have a pilot’s license. He was instead appointed to the NTSB as one of its two members who are not required to come with a technical background.

Hall acknowledged that categories C and D aircraft have top safety records and that overrun prevention issues are already addressed through federal regulations of plane design and pilot training.

“They are all aspects of aviation safety, yes sir,” Hall said.

While the current legal battle between City Hall and the FAA arose from the passage of the jet ban last year, underlying tensions between both parties date back several years, during which time federal officials presented several safety options, including an Engineered Material Arresting System — a series of concrete blocks that give way under the weight of an aircraft, slowing it down. The proposals were dismissed by city officials as being inadequate.

For decades residents have expressed concerns about the possibility of a plane overshooting the runway and landing on homes, which are located just a few hundred feet away. Federal officials have pointed out that such incidents in the past at SMO have involved the smaller category A and B aircraft and not the jets covered in the ban. City Hall has countered that fatal accidents involving the larger jets have taken place at airports across the country.

Last fall an overrun accident that took place at Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina killed four passengers and injured two others, including former Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and DJ AM. The runway at the airport is reportedly longer than the one in Santa Monica.

A separate U.S. Court of Appeals ruling on whether to rescind a cease-and-desist order that has prevented City Hall from enforcing the ban since it was supposed to go into effect last year has yet to be announced.

SM Airport Director Bob Trimborn is expected to testify today.

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