Landing fees increased at Santa Monica Airport

SMO Airport BuildingIt’s about to get more expensive to land at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) in southern California.

On April 30 the Santa Monica City Council approved a landing fee of $5.48 per 1,000 pounds on all aircraft — transient and locally based alike. For the pilot of a Cessna 172, that’s $10.96 for each landing. The fee is slated to go into effect Aug. 1.

 The current City Landing Fee Program, which applies only to transient aircraft, was put into place in 2005. It requires every non-based aircraft to pay a fee of $2.07 per 1,000 pounds of maximum certified gross landing weight. Vector Airport Solutions, a company contracted by the city, administers the program. Each month departure information from Vector’s database is forwarded to the city, which sends out bills to aircraft owners.

According to Santa Monica Director of Public Works Martin Pastucha, the latest fee increase is necessary to cover a “consistent budget shortfall.”

“The airport owes $13.3 million to the general fund,” he said, noting that for several years, the general fund was used to subsidize airport operations.

The aviation community is skeptical of the budget figures presented by the city, noted Ed Story, a vice president with the California Pilot’s Association.

“The city claims they have lost their community redevelopment funds because Governor [Jerry] Brown has cut back on these funds to the city,” he said. “The city claims they’ve lost $50 million and now the staff are under pressure to try to make [the airport] as close to break-even as possible. Under federal regulations the city can’t make money on the airport, but they can’t lose money on the airport either. It’s a delicate balance.”

Story was one of more than 100 pilots who spoke against the landing fee increase, telling the city council it is “dumb, stupid and shortsighted.”

“I told them that raising fees will cut down on activity at the airport,” he said, noting that it will be especially hard on the airport’s six flight schools because flight training requires repetitive touch and goes. “The schools make up 30% to 50% of the operations at the airport.”

According to FAA data, there was an average of 297 daily operations at SMO in 2012. A majority is local traffic.

Joe Justice, owner of Justice Aviation, one of SMO’s flight schools, said, “The cost will have to be passed on to the people who are doing the training, and we will likely have to change the format of our training to minimize the number of landings at our airport. We’d have to fly the pattern here down to 5 feet off the deck to avoid those fees.”

In addition to paying more for landing at SMO, Justice predicts student pilots will be paying for more aircraft time as they fly to Jack Northrop Field/Hawthorne Municipal Airport (HHR) 8 nm to the southeast or Van Nuys Airport (VNY) 12 nm to the north to do repeated takeoffs and landings.

The issue has caught the interest of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, who share the local pilots skepticism about the city’s figures on revenue generated by the airport and the budget shortfall.

According to Bill Dunn, AOPA’s vice president of airports, “The city is not including income from ground leases, fixed-base operator fees, tie-down, or hangar fees as airport income against costs of airport operation. And since Santa Monica has decided to not accept future federal grants, all runway, taxiway, and airport developments are now self-funded.”

Pastucha counters that many of the airport leases are for older buildings that, while leased at aviation market rates, don’t generate enough revenue to support the airport.

The city has a long record of seeking ways to restrict and reduce operations at the airport, Dunn noted. Most of those efforts are tied to noise complaints from the community, which has grown up around the airport.

SMO was created in 1917 as an informal landing field. In 1922 Donald Douglas established the Douglas Aircraft Co. at the airport. In 1941 operations expanded dramatically as Douglas’s factory became a major defense plant and the United States government took over the airport for the duration of the war. Many of the homes in close proximity to the airport were built by the Douglas company for workers at the factory. In 1948 the federal government turned the airport over to the City of Santa Monica. A covenant in the transfer requires it to remain an airport in perpetuity.

Today the airport sits on approximately 227 acres. It boasts a 4,973-foot runway, has a control tower and is designated as a reliever field for Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Dunn’s statement about the city’s efforts to curb activity at the airport is supported by a timeline on the city’s website, which notes the first noise complaint was filed after the introduction of jets to the field. The site describes the history of the airport with headings such as “The 1970s — More Controversy, More Regulation, and More Litigation” and “The 1980s — Continuing Controversy Resolved With a Landmark Agreement,” referring to a lawsuit in regard to jet noise.

“Noise is the biggest concern at Santa Monica,” confirmed Story. “Followed by pollution and then safety.”

The safety issue was revisited in 2000 when an increase in jet traffic prodded the city to look at ways to protect homes off the extended centerline of the runway from aircraft overruns. One of the options was reducing the length of the runway to create an over-run area. Another suggestion was closing the airport and redeveloping the land.

According to Story, the idea of closing the airport has been put up several times by community members, including members of the city council, who have suggested that it be closed as soon as 2015. At the April 30 meeting, city officials instructed staff to “continue to assess the potential risk and benefits of closing or attempting to close all or a portion of the airport.”

The closure would have to be approved by the FAA and, in theory, could only be done after covenants tied to FAA grants have timed out. The expiration of those covenants is an area of contention.

“In the FAA’s view, the city is obligated to keep Santa Monica Airport open through 2023 under assurances it gave in exchange for federal Airport Improvement Program grants,” said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. “The FAA also believes that the city is separately obligated to operate Santa Monica Airport beyond 2023 because it acquired the land on which the airport is located cost free from the federal government in 1948 under an instrument of transfer. The FAA is fully committed to preserving the federal investment and keeping this airport open and operating.”

Pastucha counters the covenant is up for legal interpretation, adding that city staff has been directed to continue to gather information to mitigate noise and risk and to determine the benefits of closing all or part of the airport.

In the meantime, the pilot community is looking at ways to block the increase in the landing fees.

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