Santa Monica Sued Over Airport Landing Fees

December 10, 2015 — Aviators filed a class action lawsuit Monday against the City alleging that landing fees at Santa Monica Airport – which were doubled in 2013 – were illegally adopted by the City Council.

Filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the suit asks the city to pay back approximately $6 million in landing fees collected from pilots over the past four years, which covers the statute of limitations under the California Business and Professions code, said the plaintiff’s attorney Andre E. Jardini.

The suit contends the City failed to property publicize the adoption of a law setting landing fees for the airport in 1985, and failed to do so again in 2003, when the City Council amended the ordinance, Jardini said.

The City failed to abide by California law, which required that the ordinances be published in the official newspaper within 15 days of adoption, he said.

“There are no records of publication and don’t appear to be any records that have been maintained,” said Jardini of the Glendale law firm Knapp, Peterson and Clark.

Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Ivan Campbell said his office had not yet seen the litigation and would, therefore, have no comment. He said the City has 30 days to respond.

The suit also questions the intent behind the fees for landing and fuel flowage, and whether they are being imposed by the City Council based solely on the cost of maintaining Santa Monica Airport, also a legal requirement of the operators of public services.

The plaintiffs believe the City is using the fees to force out pilots, part of a larger decades-long mission by the City to minimize the controversial airport’s use and possibly close it altogether, Jardini said.

“Doubling the fees from one day to the next was the City’s way of dissuading people from using the airport,” he said. “This is the pilots fighting back.”

The Council voted in 2013 to hike the landing fees at the airport from $2.07 to $5.48 per thousand pounds and to include aircraft based out of the airport, which had been exempt.

At the time, City officials said the higher fees would offset the airport’s debt to the City, which at that time totalled $13.3 million.

For decades, the City has battled the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over the airport, which local officials contend is too close to homes and generates noise and pollution. The Council has imposed a series of restrictions over the years that are strongly opposed by aviators.

“I think the City Council is doing what its constituents want,” Jardini said. “But they need to do it legally.”

In 2014, Santa Monica voters approved a measure that gives all control of properties at the airport to the City and asks it to clear the way to start using the site for parkland and other community-oriented activities.

Santa Monica’s airport, however, is under the jurisdiction of the FAA under an agreement that was set to expire in 2014.

The City’s efforts to shut down the airport were dealt a blow when agency officials last week ruled that Santa Monica must continue operating the 227-acre site as an airport until 2023 because the City accepted federal aviation grant money in 2003.

City officials say they are appealing the ruling (“FAA Rules Santa Monica Airport Must Stay Open,” December 7, 2015).

On Tuesday, one day after aviators filed suit, the City Attorney’s Office advised Gunnell Aviation and American Flyers, two owners of fuel tanks at the airport, that they needed to clean up contamination before their leases expire (“Santa Monica Warns Fuel Companies at Airport,” December 9, 2015).

In October, the City Council gave the City control of selling fuel, ending third-party involvement, as part of new anti-pollution rules for the airport (“City Council Cracks Down on Santa Monica Airport Pollution,” October 29, 2015).

The plaintiffs are Justice Aviation Inc., a flight school at the airport; Landau Music Group and the others who are filing on behalf of all of owners and operators of aircraft paying the fee. Jardini said those fees total about $1.6 million a year.