(SMO) Calling into question airport surveys

CITYWIDE – Some communities suffer from a lack of information. Santa Monica may have too much.

Two community organizations and one outside lobbying group each released statistics in recent months attempting to put hard numbers to one of the Westside’s most controversial questions: How many people support the Santa Monica Airport, and where are they from?

Each group feels that those numbers would provide solid evidence about what the public wants for the airport, which could see major changes in tenants and operations by the year 2015.

The two community groups, Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic (CASMAT) and the Ocean Park Association, each presented numbers that show over 80 percent of respondents prefer a reduction or outright cessation of activities at the airport.

Results offered by the Airline (Aircraft) Owner and Pilots Association, on the other hand, showed the opposite.

Each poll was conducted differently, with varying degrees of cost and professional involvement.

However, according to researchers and experts, while each of the studies and surveys captures a piece of the puzzle, they also have their flaws.

CASMAT

The three surveys were created to fill a void left by City Hall, which only conducts a community survey once every two years.

In the 2011 survey, 10 percent of respondents complained about airport noise, but that was the only reference to the airport in the 100-page report. Twenty-three percent of those were from the 90404 area code, which is near the SMO campus.

No other polling has been done.

“The basic problem is that there are no hard numbers on anything,” said John Fairweather, the creator of the group Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic.

In May, Daniel Iacofano stood before the City Council to tell them what people thought about the Santa Monica Airport.

Iacofano’s strategic planning firm, MIG, ran part of a larger visioning process meant to pare down the options for the airport come 2015 when, according to city officials, City Hall will claim some authority over what happens at the campus back from the federal government.

MIG conducted 32 sessions involving 312 people from inside and outside Santa Monica so that they could share their thoughts, concerns or approval of the airport, a source of controversy in the region.

While the two-hour sessions succeeded in showing an array of opinions on the future of the airport, illuminating what one city official called a “valley” between the two extremes of closing or maintaining the airport, the effort did not achieve what many residents have been clamoring for – hard numbers.

CASMAT stepped in to provide that data.

Fairweather first began CASMAT with neighbors who wanted to know more about the kinds of traffic coming out of SMO than the airport administration could provide, specifically what kinds of planes were flying and how much.

Their efforts, which include using an online system called WebTrak to monitor flights and even observing planes landing at SMO for multi-hour stretches, are then compiled into reports and posted at www.casmat.org.

For this survey, CASMAT sought to accomplish a similar goal, backing up neighbors’ anecdotes and frustration with hard numbers from the area exposed to airport traffic the most – the Santa Monica communities of Sunset Park and Ocean Park and areas of West L.A. like Mar Vista and Venice.

They dropped off over 20,000 questionnaires at homes throughout Ocean Park, Sunset Park and Mar Vista. Their scope was limited by the cost of the effort, which was borne entirely by members of the CASMAT and residents of other neighborhood groups.

“We just had to focus on what people in the impact area feel about the airport, which seemed the logical question to ask anyway,” Fairweather said.

Submissions came in from online and physical submissions between November 2011 and March 2012, and, after getting rid of duplicate entries, the group released a dramatic set of results.

According to CASMAT’s numbers, 80 percent of respondents wanted aviation operations decreased or eliminated, while over half wanted operations ended in their entirety.

The majority of respondents (44.6 percent) didn’t specify why they wanted the airport to change its ways, while approximately 50 percent were concerned with either noise or jet traffic.

The percentages lined up with the Ocean Park Association survey, which was sent out only to members of the community group to gauge sentiment.

According to that poll, 84 percent of respondents favored change.

AOPA

In August 2011, approximately 400 Santa Monica residents received anonymous phone calls from polling companies asking their opinions on politics and the Santa Monica Airport.

It wasn’t until May 8, 2012 that the general public discovered who was behind it.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the AOPA, wrote a letter to the City Council releasing a portion of the results.

The message: Santa Monica voters want the airport to remain open.

“We did the survey because we felt it was important to find out what the voters of Santa Monica feel,” said Bill Dunn, vice president of airport advocacy with AOPA. “Not the city of L.A., but the people that elected the mayor and the City Council.”

┬áThe survey, conducted by APCO Insight, sought out “high propensity voters,” accepting those that voted at all or most elections and also reported that
they paid attention to the news.

Each respondent was kept on the phone for 40 minutes, and asked a battery of questions that ranged from opinions about individual City Council members to
City Hall’s success in maintaining its streets and sidewalks.

Amongst those respondents, the airport was 16 out of 18 concerns, far behind traffic congestion, growth and development and education.

The survey also indicated that 54 percent felt that SMO benefited the community, and that its positive attributes outweighed any negatives.

“I view the survey as a way to tell elected officials about what the people that actually voted for it feel about the issue,” Dunn said.

As for the CASMAT survey, Dunn dismissed it, saying that it reflected the opinions only of people who don’t like the airport, and that it lacked
statistical validity.

Experts

According to experts who create and use survey data, neither survey can claim to be a bulletproof representation of community opinion.

Kamy Akhavan, the president and managing editor of ProCon.org, a research website based in Santa Monica, doesn’t use a survey unless it passes a series of “sniff tests.”

First, the name of the polling agency. While pedigree isn’t required, seeing the name Rasmussen, Gallup or Zogby next to some statistics gives a degree of confidence to the results.

“Two, we look at the sample size,” Akhavan said.

Over 1,000 looks golden, and between 500 and 700 respondents can be “good enough,” Akhavan said.

A survey’s validity is based on the quality of its sample, meaning that the group who responds to the survey should be as random as possible.

Getting a decent sample group in a limited geographic area like Santa Monica is difficult, said Sandra Berry, a senior behavioral scientist and professor
at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

The AOPA survey was conducted by a computer service that dialed random digits. AOPA hasn’t released the entirety of its survey or methodology, so it’s unclear if those results could have included people who have a cell phone without a Santa Monica area code.

Members of the younger, more mobile generations with cell phones but without landlines would be cut out of such a sample.

Even the length of the AOPA survey could count against it, Berry said.

“You have to be really interested to be on the phone for 45 minutes, to even agree to be on the phone for 45 minutes,” Berry said. “Who was willing to talk to them for that long about this problem?”

Other people hang up or don’t answer at all, a non-response that wouldn’t be counted in the end statistics.

Address-based sampling, like that conducted by CASMAT, is difficult to rely on for a similar reason – many people think it’s junk mail and toss it out indiscriminately.

Of the over 20,000 flyers distributed, CASMAT received just under 1,100 responses, despite the fact that it only put out information in neighborhoods closest to the airport.

Design is also a critical element to survey success, Akhavan said.

“Is the question being asked ‘Do you support using medical marijuana or see someone suffer and die in pain?'” Akhavan said.

How questions are asked and even what order they appear can influence the survey taker, said Michael Traugott, a professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

In this, the AOPA survey may have benefited from some professional help, whereas the CASMAT survey was leading.

“It asks questions about problems with the airport before it asked what people thought should be done with the airport,” Traugott said. “That sort of order can be troublesome.”

Finally, Akhavan looks for a margin of error.

“If it exceeds 5 percent, something doesn’t smell right,” Akhavan said. Procon.org likes to stick in the 1, 2 and 3 percent range.

For the record, the AOPA poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percent, plus or minus, and CASMAT did not have one.

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