The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Flying Right

By Frank Gruber

The usual subject matter of any city council's deliberations are local issues that appear mundane to the uninvolved or uninitiated, but that wasn't the case last week when the Santa Monica City Council debated the future of jet aircraft at the Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

Notwithstanding a detailed presentation from the Federal Aviation Administration proposing installation of safety systems, and threats of litigation, the council passed an ordinance banning large corporate jets ("City Restricts Jets," March 27, 2008).

The issues were as big as the planes and involved the whole nature of how government is organized in America.

I have written about the jets issue recently enough ("WHAT I SAY: In the Flight Path," December 3, 2007) that I'll try not to repeat myself, but I'll say it again that it's nuts for the FAA to fault the past policies of the cites of Santa Monica and Los Angeles in allowing development around the airport.

As Council Member Pam O'Connor pointed out at the meeting, residential development around the airport in large part provided housing for workers at what was for several decades the airport's primary use, the Douglas Aircraft plant. The development around the airport occurred long before the airport was turned into a major facility for business jets, which can be heavier, and are much faster, than the biggest airplanes of the World War II era.

I was discussing this with a cousin of mine who is an Air Force vet, and he pointed out that the B-17 bomber, one of the bigger planes of World War II, landed at a speed of only 90 mph, and needed 3,400 feet to take off and 2,900 feet to land. The runway at the airport is nearly 5,000 feet.

The B-17 had a normal loaded weight of about 50,000 pounds and a maximum take-off weight of 65,500 lbs. -- a little less that of a Gulfstream-IV corporate jet, one of the models the council is trying to ban, which can have a maximum weight of more than 70,000 pounds.

The number of Category C and D jet operations at the airport has skyrocketed (no pun intended) over the past twenty years to more than 8,500 per year, yet the airport does not meet the FAA's standards for these aircraft. It is not the neighborhoods, but these jets that are the incongruous change that has occurred at the airport.

As well as the substance of the arguments between the City and the FAA about safety systems, the probability of accidents, and similar matters, what interested me at the council meeting was what the dispute says about the many layers of government we have, and how hard it is to balance interests and objectives that cross categories.

The job of the FAA, set by statute, is to promote civil aviation, and their people -- such as the courtly Kirk Shaffer who represented the FAA at the meeting (and whose beautiful accent makes him sound like John Edwards' brother) -- do that job well without regard to whether it still makes sense, in an era when we're concerned about energy independence and global warming, to continue to encourage private aviation.

Meanwhile, the Santa Monica and Los Angeles governments are interested in promoting the quality of life of their residents who live in the nearby neighborhoods, but there is no place in the FAA's charter to take that into account. The agency's view is that when an airport outgrows its surroundings, it is the surroundings that need to change. According to Mr. Shaffer, the agency would be willing to spend a lot of money to buy up the nearby houses, to create a safety no man's land, but there's no thought that, for example, that money might be spent on more efficient forms of transportation.

This is essentially a political issue, because it involves the allocations of public benefits and costs, but in our multi-modal government, there is no one authority -- no sovereign -- that adjusts these interests.

In the long run I suppose that's good -- we all like checks and balances -- but as happens so often, the political issue of what should take precedence, the interests of aviation or the interests of the neighborhood, will now go to court, where the merits will get mixed up into a spaghetti bowl of laws that were not extruded over time from the legislative process with the idea that they would ever be part of the same dish.

Last Wednesday, one day after the council passed the ordinance, the FAA filed an Order to Show Cause against the City, demanding that it explain why it thinks it has the authority to change airport operations, which the FAA claims are solely within its domain. That filing was the first step in what promises to be an epic court battle.("FAA Files Order Challenging Airport Law," March 31, 2008)

But then when that's over, probably regardless of the result in court, the issue will become political again. If the courts back the FAA, Santa Monica and L.A. will enlist the support of the two powerful local U.S. representatives who represent the area, Henry Waxman and Jane Harman, to pressure the FAA to change its policies. If Santa Monica wins, you can bet that the influential people who fly in the big corporate jets, and the aviation industry, will use their influence to try to overturn the ruling.

The focus now turns to the City's strategy to fight the FAA. There were actually three major proposals on the table last week: (1) the City's proposed ban, (2) the FAA's proposal, which the City considered inadequate, to install an "engineered materials arresting system" (EMAS) to stop planes that overshoot the runway at one end of the airport, and (3) the City's alternative plan that would install two EMASs, one at each end of the airport, which would add safety but reduce the length of the runway.

The FAA has rejected the City's alternate plan because a shorter runway would inhibit, although not proscribe, operations by the larger jets. (The biggest would have to fly with less fuel, meaning they could not fly as far without refueling.)

Although at Council member Bob Holbrook's suggestion the council asked staff to research what it would take for the City to install the two systems, I suspect that most members of the council and residents would rather not to do. For one thing, installing the EMASs would not be cheap, and the City would be loathe to accept FAA money for the job, since that would postpone the date, now 2015, when the City could first try to close the airport down entirely.

Also, the alternative plan would not significantly reduce the number of big jets, which is what the residents want.

But the City's alternative could play a significant role in the litigation, as it might help persuade the judge that the City has not been completely unhelpful or negative. The City offered the FAA an alternative that would cause minimal inconvenience to jet-users. The FAA said no, and the parties are headed to court.

The next chapter will be the City's reply to the FAA's Order to Show Cause, which is due this week. That will be the first look at the City's litigation strategy.

* * *

I have an old college friend, Mike, who comes from a politically involved family from Indiana; his brothers have been in the state assembly, things like that. Mike moved to L.A. to become a screenwriter, but he remains political to the bone. We get together to watch presidential debates and the returns on election night.

Mike has never lived in Santa Monica and I was surprised maybe ten years ago when he told me he enjoyed listening to the Santa Monica City Council on KCRW. "Huh," I can imagine myself saying, "are you kidding?"

Mike told me that in his opinion, the level of discussion at the council was remarkably high; high for any governmental body, but especially one that dealt with local issues. He didn't just mean the discussion among the members on the dais, but also the discourse that came from the public. I remember his last bit of praise for the meetings: "even the cranks make sense occasionally."

By repeating that, I don't mean to suggest that anyone who speaks regularly at council meetings is a crank. Specifically I want to say that Joe Natoli, who died two weeks ago ("Outspoken Critic of Local Government Dies," March 14, 2008), and who was memorialized before last week's City Council meeting, was certainly not a crank. A regular he was, and he had an opinion about everything, but his manner was always the opposite of "crankiness," however you define that word.

I had no personal relationship with Mr. Natoli -- we once shared a bus ride up Main Street, and that was about it. When I started writing this column (talk about crankiness!) I stopped speaking at council meetings, and since then I have found it easier to watch the meetings on TV or on the computer. That's my loss, because I miss interactions with the human beings like Mr. Natoli who attend the meetings.

But I often watched Mr. Natoli on the video of council meetings, or saw him at other meetings, and I admired his levelheaded demeanor, even when, as could occur, I disagreed with the point he was making.

In that way, Mr. Natoli was typical of his fellow regulars, most of whom are remarkably congenial for people obsessed with government. Let me honor Mr. Natoli's memory by saying not only good things about him, but also good things about all of the council's regulars. At times they may drive those regulars on the dais a little crazy, but generally they are not obstreperous, and whether they are cranks or not, they "make sense" about as frequently as anyone else.

Many meetings coming up this week:

First, as reported in the Lookout ( "Expo Line at Crossroads," March 28), Tuesday evening at 6:30 there's a public workshop on the Expo Line at Crossroads School, 1714 21st Street. For more details, go to this link:

Then Wednesday night is the next big workshop for the LUCE process. That's at Lincoln Middle School, at 6:30. For more details, go to this link:

Then Thursday evening the Santa Monica-Malibu school board will take up both the report of the independent consultants who have evaluated the District's special education programs and more analysis of plans to spend the Measure BB funds. I don't how the board will deal with both issues in one night. The meeting will take place at the District's offices, 1651 16th Street, and starts at 5:30.

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at . If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.
Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon