Earthen EMAS: How to Make the Most of the KSMO Consent Decree

What is going on in Santa Monica? Is the City honoring the will of the people who rejected massive campaigning by aviation lobbyists, and resoundingly approved Measure LC back in 2014? Or, is the City pulling a fast one on its people?

(click on image to view an aiREFORM Post about the accident and the lack of runway safety areas at KSMO)

Increasingly, it looks like the City is pretending to care about the lead, the particulates, the noise, and the obvious health impacts, yet is doing nothing to correct these problems.

Then, too, there is the problem of airport proximity to dense residential properties; airport neighbors have actually had lawn furniture blown over by the blast behind jets taking the runway; the smell of jet exhaust is a regular occurrence in backyards, where children play.

The fiery crash of an arriving bizjet back in 2013 killed four, but would have been far worse if that volume of jet fuel had ignited while crashing through the houses within the designated Runway Protection Zones (RPZs). Yep, although RPZs are supposed to be vacant land, hundreds of houses exist in the trapezoidal spaces at the ends of the Santa Monica runway; both FAA and the airport authority – the City – are going to be held accountable and found totally liable, if and when a crash happens in the RPZs.

The Consent Decree itself is suspect … no, doubly suspect. The City had a solid legal case, Nelson Hernandez had been insisting to noise activists that there were no discussions toward settlement, and yet City suddenly gave away all their advantage and caved to FAA pressures … AND Chamber of Commerce pressures, … and wealthy jet owner and wealthy airport users’ pressures. Twelve more years were added, with no guarantee of eventual airport closure. The only ‘gains’ received by the City were the right to shorten the runway, from 5,000-ft to 3,500-ft. The shortening was supposed to be immediate; rational people assumed it would take at least a few weeks or months to formally shorten the runway on paper, and add some surface markings. Instead, this process is being badly bungled, and is really calling to question, the integrity and intent of City Manager Rick Cole and key personnel such as Mr. Hernandez. Here are some examples of their bungling:

  • on 4/25, a meeting was held to share options for how to shorten the runway. The only options offered were to shorten it by clipping 750-ft off each end, or to shorten it by removing the bulk of the 1,500-ft from the west end. There was no option offered to remove 1,500-ft from the east end, which would best serve the most impacted airport neighbors (because the airport is nearly always in a west flow, the engine runups and idling by bizjets and charter jets nearly always happen on the east end; the jets often fly out IFR, thus have to wait until ATC can alter the LAX flow, to safely allow the SMO departures … so the jet idling can go on for a long time; also, the predominant winds push the concentrated pollutants to West LA, just east of the airport).
  • the meeting invitations went out only to the so-called ‘stakeholders’: pilots, airport operators & tenants, and other aviation folk. The local non-aviation community was not invited.
  • eventually, the local non-aviation community found out. Understandably, they felt slighted. Trust in Rick Cole and Nelson Hernandez has plummeted.
  • now, tonight, the Airport Commission meets, to consider the limited options, which reportedly carry an extraordinary $6 Million price tag, mostly just for adding paint to pavement!
  • It’s as if the goal is to so frustrate activists that they just give up (but they can’t: the stakes are too high, when you are fighting for health!).

So, that’s how bad it is. Now, if the City really cared to resolve decades-old airport problems, what would they have immediately embarked on after finalizing this Consent Decree?

  1. as a first step, declare the closure to become effective at the earliest allowable date. If any operators of the airport need more than 3,500-ft of runway, they would have a reasonable time window to depart, but after the closure date, that option would no longer exist.
  2. designate a runway portion for the initial closure. This does not have to be the final closure portion, but it does have to be designated. The surface markings have to be added, and the ATC procedures modified, to make it illegal for any flight to use this runway portion except in an emergency. Thankfully, the surface markings and modified ATC procedures are not a large or expensive task, and are easily completed.
  3. simultaneous with the above, define a full set of runway shortening options. The present set is woefully deficient. A full set would include at least three final runway positions, where the final runway portions to be closed would be all at the east end, all at the west end, or equally on both ends of the runway.
  4. a second set of ‘options’ – and equally important for addressing airport impacts – is what to do with the closed runway portions. Are they to be maintained, to enable longer takeoff or landing distances for larger bizjets, or are they to be declared unusable? So, this second set of options should consider removal of the asphalt versus painting the asphalt, and should also consider how the surface of the former runway sections are to be finished and maintained (grass, sand, or ??).
  5. if the goal is to maximize safety and minimize environmental impacts by bizjets and charter jets, the solution should be to discourage use of the airport by jets. Therefore, it would be a no-brainer to tear out the asphalt and create an earthen EMAS – perhaps sand, or perhaps just compacted soil seeded to grass, as is found at most airports. A small jet, aborting a takeoff or with a brake failure on arrival, would have its speed safely arrested in the overrun area; larger charter jets would simply avoid SMO, using longer runways in less impacted communities instead. LAX, for example, which has a brand new VIP terminal aimed at serving elite charter clients.
  6. for the record, FAA’s version of EMAS is very expensive. A specially formulated ‘crushable concrete’ is poured, and the cost to repair is also very high. Not just for actual accidents, but also when a pilot blunders and accidentally taxis onto it, as happened at Burbank with a private jet carrying baseball player Alex Rodriguez, in October 2006.

The Santa Monica Airport should have been closed decades ago; that it has not yet closed testifies not only to the power of the aviation lobby and the depth of FAA’s corruption in serving that lobby, but also to the lack of will (and intentional deception?) by City officials. From a distance, it is hard to watch this play out and not wonder, who’s getting paid off with what? Is Santa Monica just a wealthier version of the Bell, CA scandal?


UPDATE, 5/3/2017: — a petition for writ of mandate was filed by two citizens, seeking to have the Consent Decree declared null and void, on grounds that it was negotiated in violation of open records laws; see 98-page PDF copy here.