Santa Monica Airport


Santa Monica and west Los Angeles residents who booked upcoming chartered flights to Carlsbad, San Jose and Vegas from SMO will be getting their money back. With news the runway will lose more than a thousand feet of landing room, JetSuite X is cancelling all flights until Feb. 24.

It’s enough time to give their CEO a chance to figure out what to do next.

Alex Wilcox has just one word to describe the sudden agreement between the City and the FAA to close Santa Monica Airport in 2028: “blindsided.”

“It was a shock,” Wilcox said of the Saturday morning announcement the FAA was dropping its push to keep the airport open allowing the City to immediately shorten the runway to 3,500 feet. Once the runway is repaved, JetSuiteX’s thirty-seat charter jets will no longer be able to take off.

It seems just about everyone was shocked. The few attendees at Saturday’s sleepy City Council meeting – a study session on citizen wellbeing – had no idea the councilmembers would also vote on a landmark decision to drop numerous lawsuits and sign a consent decree with the FAA. The councilmembers narrowly voted 4-3 to support the settlement that now goes before a federal judge. The agreement also allows the City to sell fuel, provide aeronautical services (as opposed to private operators) and do as they wish with land not used for aviation.

Those involved with the negotiations were also shocked when the FAA suddenly expressed a willingness to work with the City on a compromise.

“There’s still disbelief. It’s fair to say when I accepted being interim City Attorney the possibility of settling this seemed more than remote,” Joseph Lawrence said in an interview. “It was a glimmer maybe out there somewhere. It was so far away. It seemed nobody was every going to get there. I don’t know how to say it. It’s startling.”

It has, until recently, been the FAA’s stance that the airport should remain open forever. Although there has been much speculation from outside groups that the change in presidential administrations led to the FAA flip-flop, Lawrence says the negotiations actually started a month before the election in October.

“There was a different focus within the FAA in reaching out to the City and that involved different people in the FAA becoming actively involved,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence would not go into details on the discussion because of the confidential nature of the agreement, but denied the deal is a parting gift from Obama administration.

“The change in presidential administrations only slowed it down at the very, very end. It changed which people at the federal end had to be informed and then agree. That process took awhile and then finally occurred late Friday.”

“Given the opposition that some in the community have to this consent decree, there are many people who would hardly agree this was a gift to them,” Lawrence said.

It is true that the sudden compromise has given aviation organizations and anti-airport activists something they can finally agree on: disdain for this deal. Neither side was given a seat at the table when negotiating the agreement. In fact, two anti-airport groups filed an emergency motion to try and stop the settlement Tuesday. A district court judge rejected the motion, calling the settlement “fair, reasonable and adequate to all concerned.” There will be a protest at the airport Saturday, as activists and neighbors complain twelve more years of jet flights over the densely populated neighborhood is hardly reasonable.

Sources familiar with negotiations but who would not talk on the record because of confidentiality agreements say the City rejected several offers by the FAA that would have kept the airport open for even longer. Both sides went back and forth with numerous counter-offers before reaching the twelve-year compromise. Neither the FAA nor the Justice Department responded to the Daily Press’ request for comment.

In recent days, several City Council members continue to publicly support the deal.

“As someone who has settled cases over the last three decades, I know the best settlements are the ones where both sides walk away a little bit unhappy,” Councilmember Gleam Davis said, who serves as in-house council for AT&T, in addition to her duties on the City Council.

On Wednesday, Mayor Ted Winterer appeared as a guest on KPCC’s afternoon interview show AirTalk to defend the closure and his vote.

“This was a difficult decision to make, I’ll acknowledge,” Winterer said to a Santa Monica resident who called the radio show to complain the City could have reached a better deal in court.

“There was also the possibility that the FAA would prevailed and we would be propelled to operate at least part of the airport into perpetuity,” Winterer said.

“Those who voted for it did because it eliminates all the risk.”

The deal also eliminates millions of dollars in legal fees both the City and the FAA would have spent over the next few years fighting it out in court.

For now, JetSuiteX is hoping to avoid a court battle as well. Wilcox says both sides have agreed to hold off filing lawsuits for the next few weeks, hoping the City can reach yet another compromise to allow his chartered jet service to continue until construction on the runway begins. The City says JetSuiteX must complete an environmental impact survey on the neighborhood before beginning any new service. By the time that’s done, the window for large jet service may be closed.