From St. Clair to Santa Monica – How FAA Delays Airport Closures

One of the biggest airport fights in the U.S. today is in Santa Monica, CA [KSMO], where neighbors and community officials are trying to close down at least part of KSMO and use the land for better purposes. This airport has some of the worst lead-contamination for all U.S. airports, related to decades of heavy use by small aircraft still using leaded aviation fuels. Numerous jets use KSMO for expensive charter flights, instead of using nearby [KLAX] (5-miles southeast), Hawthorne ([KHHR], 8-miles southeast), Van Nuys ([KVNY], 12-miles north), or Burbank ([KBUR], 12-miles northeast). These charter jets have a noise impact (especially during early and late flight times, as are common for personal jet charters); they also have a documented air quality (soot) impact.

When a community decides that an airport should be closed, it normally is not just a spur-of-the-moment idea. Normally, there has been a long history of research and analysis — often at great expense — to present the substantial community improvements that might result. An airport closure typically makes available hundreds or thousands of airport acres, which can be re-developed as parks, neighborhoods, or industrial/commercial land. But, those who use the airport — or may possibly use the airport in the future — campaign to preserve it. So, those in favor of an airport closure find loud opposition from certain groups, especially the pilots based at the airport, the aviation organizations (e.g., NBAA and AOPA), and FAA.

It is important to also recognize that the strongest opposition to an airport closure proposal comes not from the aviation people but from the processes that FAA administers. For example, every year FAA takes passenger taxes and doles out AIP grants to thousands of airports in every state. With each AIP grant, the recipient airport takes on a ‘Grant Assurance’ in which they promise to maintain the airport and keep it in service for at least twenty years. These AIP funds are very generous and enticing to local officials. Historically, AIP Grants have provided at least 90% of the project cost. Up until just a few years ago, the grant funding was an incredible 95% of project costs. This meant that the community had to provide only 5%, which often was available from state lottery revenues or other ‘slush funds’. So, a community in a fiscal pinch and looking at laying off employees may fund continued work and prop up their budget with a few million dollars in federal funds, if they just apply. Or, a politician needing to show he brought home the bacon can grease the skids and show off the giant check just before election time. The problem, though, is many funded projects are not needed. And, once funded, the eventual maintenance costs will often overtake the short-term gain from the initial grant funds.

What is Happening Recently at Santa Monica?

Back in 2014, on July 2nd, NBAA and others filed a 243-page formal complaint with FAA to compel an eventual FAA decision. The complaint spelled out some history and perspective, and asked FAA to reject the City-declared intent to close the airport on or after July 1, 2015. This is a ‘Part 16’ complaint, meaning it is supposed to follow the process and timelines outlined at 14CFR Section 16. More importantly, the Part 16 filing is a delay tactic. FAA is the authority responsible for hearing and deciding the complaint, and yet FAA has a history of promoting aviation. So, FAA delays….

20151025cpy.. Fox-in-HenhouseIn a farm analogy, this is like a coyote asking a fox to review chicken coop security measures. This is how FAA has handled this type of matter for decades. And what is the FAA predatory security guard doing at KSMO? They just delayed AGAIN, for the third time, precipitating this letter signed by the Mayor and all Council members.

The people voted in 2014, and sent a clear mandate to the elected officials: Santa Monica Airport needs to change, either scaled back to small planes only, or closed entirely. There is a very effective website created to promote KSMO’s closure and the eventual development of a park. It has done an excellent job of chronicling the news, reports, decisions and other activities on this issue. But, so long as FAA stands nonresponsive to the People, nothing will change. The adverse impacts (noise, and some of the worst lead and jet fuel soot pollution in the nation) will continue, to the detriment of local health and quality of life.

An Example: The Delayed Closure of St. Clair Regional Airport

One example of an airport set to close is at St. Clair [K39], in central Missouri. The airport was created in 1964 and accepted four federal grants totaling just over $1 million; the first two grants to acquire land in 1963 and 1983, and the last two grants, each worth $300,000, to maintain decaying pavement in 2004 and in 2006. In more than fifty years, this tiny airport had never broken even; i.e., the local community has always had to SPEND local money to subsidize the airport, and had to accept federal funds (and commit to grant obligations) in order to do simple maintenance. (…kind of like an addict, feeling no choice but to somehow get another fix of the drug they desperately need; yes, the fox is also a drug dealer….)

So, shortly after the 2006 grant to repair pavement, local officials set out to close and redevelop the airport. A series of Part 16 complaints were then filed to delay closure of a tiny airport, a generally dead area of town that provides parking space for a handful of small airplanes that could easily base at other, nearby airports. In 2011, a 203-page package (including a 48-page report by a consultant) was created. The town clearly proved their case, and they had a plan to develop the land to better serve the community, but they could do nothing while FAA delayed. Finally, in July 2014, a Senator submitted a Congressional proposal to override FAA; the proposal became law in December 2014 … though, according to online sources, the airport STILL remains open.

Here is an excerpt from a great letter, written by an aviation consultant in early 2011. He explained how outdated (and one-sided) FAA’s standards and administrative processes are, and he even offered to do pro bono work for Congress, to aid in closing the St. Clair Regional Airport:

“We have too many general aviation airports in this country, serving a dwindling number of users who are operating their aircraft fewer hours, especially today. Although this is not encouraging, it also represents an opportunity for change in national policies affecting these airports through effective leadership.

The FAA is unable and unwilling to act responsively to these issues due to the laws that are in effect and the stringency (and one-sidedness) of their internal policies and regulations with respect to releases from grant obligations and revenue diversion. The agency clings to policies that date back to the early days of civil aviation, and Congress has been remiss in not addressing this aspect as part of its oversight responsibilities. It is time to make a change through leadership at the Congressional level.”

What we see at St. Clair is, yes, airport closures CAN happen. What we need at Santa Monica is a cooperative FAA.

We just need FAA to do its job
SERVE the PEOPLE, not just the Airlines!