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FAA Warns City: Curb Airport Safety Measures

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

March 28 -- While less than 500 feet of runway could ground a compromise on important safety features at the local airport, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Santa Monica may now stand miles apart in negotiations to stop jets from overrunning the airstrip.

In a move that stunned City officials who worry jet traffic at the local airport poses a potential danger to neighboring residents, FAA Monday asked the City to further curb proposed safety measures at the Santa Monica Airport.

The unexpected message -- delivered at a well-attended Monday workshop hosted by the Airport Commission -- came despite recent negotiations between the FAA and City officials to ensure jet traffic at the local airport does not careen off runways into surrounding neighborhoods.

"There is a balance in terms of regional access,” said Brian Armstrong, an FAA district official ordered by regional superiors to attend the Santa Monica meeting. “Any action that may restrict that access through the installation of (safety systems) and Restricted Safety Areas is not acceptable."

City officials -- who felt the FAA had agreed with their efforts to possibly carve out 900 total feet from Santa Monica's 5,000-foot runway -- were stunned to learn that only half the footage of the safety area used to stop planes could be used.

Some 300 feet of plane arresting collapsible concrete proposed would need to be cut to 165 feet on the west-facing runway used by 90 percent of the traffic, Armstrong said.

In addition, 600 feet of proposed restricted strip on the less frequently used east-facing runway would need to be reduced by several hundred feet to give more take-off and landing room for planes, he said.

Airport commissioners and experts said the changes would mean more of the heavier, faster planes the system is designed to catch could continue past the barrier in the event of an accident at the small non-commercial airport.

Despite an increase in jet operations to nearly 18,000 flights a year, the FAA believes airport safety is currently at its highest because the increased runway length gives pilots more time to react to a problem, Armstrong said.

"What we feel is the safest operation of the facility is the way it operates today," Armstrong told commissioners during several hours of pointed questioning at a rare public appearance for FAA officials before the local body.

City officials -- who contend the increase in jet traffic may violate a 1984 settlement between the City and the federal government over a change in the mix of local operations – were taken aback by the FAA’s message.

"That came as a complete surprise and, frankly, I see it as a giant step backwards in securing the safety of our neighborhoods," City Manager Lamont Ewell told The Lookout Tuesday.

Ewell -- whose office has been in talks with the FAA in the last few months -- formally took control of airport issues in January in an effort to move stalled negations forward on a number of issues, especially safety.

Airport commissioners shared Ewell’s reaction.

"I believe the City was blindsided by the fact that the FAA finds only half the safety (footage) acceptable," said Commission Chair Mark Young. "The only compromise has been on the City's part… yet we have been asked to compromise further."

Commissioners who took up the issue two weeks after the City Council addressed airport safety -- operating under the same assumption that 900 total feet of safety area was acceptable to the FAA -- lashed out at the new conditions. But they held off on making a formal recommendation to the City Manger until next month.

"It seems to be the crux of this issue is balancing tensions in maximizing access to (airport users) and us having safety precautions," said Commissioner Ofer Grossman.

Grossman also suggested that when the commission makes a recommendation on the safety enhancements presented to the FAA for approval, the City should stop trying to find a middle ground.

"As some point, we need to end this charade…and just come up with something that is right for the City of Santa Monica," he said, echoing the sentiment of other commissioners.

Grossman and some of his colleagues accused the FAA of placing traffic and commerce above the welfare of residents who live in the densely packed flight path, only a few hundred feet from an airport surrounded by homes and businesses.

"There is absolutely no weight given with respect to increased safety at the airport," Grossman said.

Commissioner Susan Hartley asked pointblank whether "human fatalities are ever factored into the calculations," when planning acceptable safety standards at airports.

While Armstrong testified that the FAA looks at a number of factors when considering possible safety changes requested by cities that own an airport, there is no specific calculation for the cost of human casualties.

"That particular analysis does not look at the congregation of population," he acknowledged.

Still, he said, impacts of a potential accident are still considered in the broader analysis.

"Our focus is on the aviation aspect," he told commissioners. "But the safety of people and property is part of that equation."

While a few businesses said they would no longer use Santa Monica Airport if the 600 feet were carved out for safety on the east-facing runway, the majority of businesses said it would force them to carry less cargo or fly to closer destinations.

If businesses no longer choose to use Santa Monica airport because safety enhancements make it less convenient, it is not a question of access.

"The fact that the inconvenience of a fueling stop versus safety at the airport… is considered a loss of access is unacceptable," said Grossman. "Those comments are based on business decisions, not a restriction of access."

At least one commissioner suggested perhaps formulating a motion based on safety performance so negotiations between the City and FAA can continue without focusing on how many feet could be lopped off the runway.

Others suggested making a flat recommendation to add 600 feet of restricted space on both ends of the runways, a move that would dramatically impact growing jet traffic at the airport.

It's been years since the FAA last testified before a local commission and years since statistics first suggested that the airport could be less safe due to an increase in jet traffic.

Before the City Manager's office makes its recommendation, Airport commissioners, as well as the City Council, is expected to weigh on the issue next month.

In the meantime, the City Attorney's office is working to settle an administrative complaint by the FAA challenging the City's 2002 Airport Conformance Plan, which restricts the classes of aircraft -- namely jets -- at the airport and was the first law of its kind in the United States.

In addition, an air quality study is being conducted by the Air Quality Management District and area legislators are in the process of determining what type of bill should be introduced at the State level to tackle jet pollution locally.


"Any action that may restrict that access through the installation of (safety systems) and Restricted Safety Areas is not acceptable." Brian Armstrong



"That came as a complete surprise and, frankly, I see it as a giant step backwards in securing the safety of our neighborhoods." Lamont Ewell


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