A Bombardier Challenger 600 at the Santa Monica Airport. City Hall and the FAA are in dispute about a local law banning certain types of jet aircraft. The FAA ruled that the ban is illegal. (photo by Benjamin Brayfield)

DOWNTOWN — The long-standing battle between the FAA and City Hall over a jet ban at Santa Monica Airport is now likely on its way to a federal court of appeals after aviation officials on Wednesday ruled that the local law unjustly discriminates against certain classes of aircraft.

The ruling by the FAA’s associate administrator for policy, planning and the environment marks the agency’s final decision on the issue concerning a 2008 ordinance banning categories C and D jets from SMO as a safety precaution to guard nearby residents from the possibility of a runway accident.

City officials said they will decide within the next 30 days whether to file an appeal with either the District of Columbia Circuit or Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the latter of which in May upheld an injunction restricting City Hall from enforcing its jet ban.

The decision wasn’t exactly shocking to city officials, though they were pleased the associate administrator reversed some previous stances by the FAA.

“It’s not surprising that they made the ultimate finding that they did not believe the city ordinance was in compliance … but again they narrowed the focus on the appeal at least from the city’s perspective, so that was a favorable thing,” Deputy City Attorney Lance Gams said.

The associate administrator’s order was also the last step in the agency’s long appeals process on the issue, which began last year when City Hall contested the FAA’s administrative review on the jet ban. That appeal was heard by FAA hearing officer Anthony Palladino, who agreed with the review on three of five points, including that the ordinance discriminates against certain classes of aeronautical activities, discriminates in a manner inconsistent with a 1984 agreement between City Hall and the FAA, and discriminates the operation of the airport.

The hearing officer also found that contrary to the FAA’s arguments, the ordinance does not grant an exclusive right to operate categories A and B aircraft. He concluded that he does not have jurisdiction to decide whether City Hall could regulate on matters of federal airspace because of preemption by federal authorities.

While the associate administrator affirmed part of the hearing officer’s decision, it also reversed some, which worked in City Hall’s favor.

The administrator stated that it’s unnecessary to decide whether the ordinance discriminates the operation of the airport and that City Hall’s obligation under the 1984 agreement is not a proper subject in the proceedings.

One reversal that the FAA prevailed on in the administrator’s decision is on the matter of preemption, finding that while airport owners can exercise authority in aviation regulation, that power does not extend to a ban on certain classes of aircraft.

“We’re encouraged by the fact that the associate administrator on some of the other issues clarified what the FAA can and can’t do,” Gams said. “However, the bottom line of this is that the FAA is saying that we cannot enforce our ordinance and that is not something we agree with.”

Runway safety has long been a concern for residents who live near Santa Monica Airport where the runway sits within 300 feet of homes from both ends. Residents have expressed fears that a jet will one day overshoot the runway and land on homes.

The FAA has presented several safety measures in the past, including installing collapsible concrete meant to give way under the weight of an aircraft. The City Council denied these recommendations as being insufficient and adopted the jet ban last spring. Aviation authorities have said they remain willing to institute the proposals.

Sunset Park resident Brian Bland, who has closely followed the proceedings and attended several hearings on the matter, said he believes the FAA is still “rolling the dice on public safety.”

“What we got here is the FAA looking at itself,” he said. “[The decision] was expected in that sense.”


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