[KSMO]: Grossly Incompatible with the Community Around It

It has been a busy Fall at the Santa Monica Airport [KSMO], where FAA is flexing its administrative-legal muscles, intervening to delay city efforts to evict two private operators. The City wants to take over fuel sales and other airport services (known as ‘FBO services’), but the private FBOs do not want to accept that their leases are expired, nor do they want to give up lucrative profits. Just like FAA does not want to adhere to the agreement they struck with the city, in 1984, which meant the city could outright close the airport in July 2015.

In a recent email, Nelson Hernandez, the Senior Advisor to the Santa Monica City Manager, offered yet another update on the city’s progress. He noted that, “…on August 23, Council directed the City Manager to establish a city-owned FBO by December 31, or as soon as practicable….” He then added, there is ample precedent for airport authorities (in this case, the City of Santa Monica) setting up their own FBO services at an airport, instead of letting an out-of-state operator reap the hefty profits. He noted three airports: “…in the last two years, Fort Wayne, Greenville, and Chattanooga, created their own City FBO for similar financial reasons….” He was referring to airports in Fort Wayne, IN [KFWA], Greenville, NC [KPGV], and Knoxville, TN [KDKX].

Out of curiosity, I did some online research and confirmed that, yes, all three of these airports have city-operated FBOs. And, all three appear to be very healthy airports. Nelson’s list of three airports included one with an FAA control tower [KFWA] and two with no control tower [KPGV] and [KDKX]). Here’s the data on these three airports, with [KSMO] added for comparison:

    • KFWA: 70 based aircraft, a 12,000ft runway and an 8,000ft runway. FAA data shows the airport had 36,100 landings and takeoffs in 2015, down 71% from its peak year (124,000 ops in 2000). [3,400 acres, surrounded by farmland]
    • KPGV: 71 based aircraft, a 7,200ft runway, and a 5,000ft runway. Form 5010 shows 48,200 annual operations in the year ending 5/30/2016 (this is a rough estimate, as there is no tower). [872 acres, surrounded by forest, farmland and limited residential development]
    • KDKX: 167 based aircraft, and a single, 3,500ft runway. Form 5010 shows 68,400 annual operations in the year ending 4/30/2013 (this is a rough estimate, as there is no tower). [200 acres, surrounded by a river, a large quarry, and farmland]
    • KSMO: 249 based aircraft, and a single 5,000ft runway. FAA data shows the airport had 90,200 annual operations in 2015, down 62% from its peak year (234,800 ops in 1991). [215 acres, surrounded by dense residential neighborhoods; and, within the airport, substantial footage is presently subleased to non-aviation business uses, generating profits for the FBOs.]

I noticed something else, too, which was a bit startling. You’ll see it starkly presented in the three image-pairs below. When you look at how Santa Monica’s runway is shoe-horned into the neighborhoods, and when you compare it to the ‘airport normality’ of these other three, far less crowded airport locations, it just jumps out at you. And, when you look at the series of images showing how many houses were removed in recent years for a runway expansion at a very slow Greenville airport, you just have to wonder how in the world people can coexist with business jets so close to their Santa Monica homes. I mean, if FAA moves people out of their homes in Greenville, what is it about Santa Monica homeowners that makes them less at risk than North Carolinians? And given that there are so many Santa Monica homes, would it not make the most sense to simply close the airport??

Clearly, each of these three airports is far more compatibly located than is the Santa Monica Airport. In fact, looking at these three, I just have to say: if I was the new FAA Administrator, I’d be quick to ask my new highly-paid subordinates:

“Why are we NOT working with the city to expedite closing this airport? After all, it is grossly incompatible with the community (look at all those houses, and so close to the runway!), it is clearly a health hazard, and we have plenty of other LA Basin airports and longer, safer runways to serve the business jets and general aviation, all of which are far below their historic high traffic levels. So, when are we going to start serving everyone, not just our buddies who employ us after we retire?”

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UPDATE, 12/6/2016: — per a request, click here for a PDF version of this entire Post.