Citing safety as its paramount concern, the Santa Monica City Council has defied federal aviation officials by voting to ban the fastest jets now using the city's airport, including the Gulfstream IV, Challenger and Citation X aircraft popular with business executives.
By a 7-0 vote Tuesday, the council approved an ordinance that a city staff report states would protect public safety, particularly that of residents living immediately next to the ends of the airport runway and individuals using and working at the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration vowed to challenge the ban, which is set for a second and final vote in January.
Residents of Santa Monica and the Mar Vista section of Los Angeles have complained for years that the airport's lack of runway buffers and its location on a plateau with steep drop-offs creates the potential for a deadly accident should an aircraft roar past the end of the runway.
The airport is unusual in its proximity to homes, the nearest of which are within 300 feet of the runway's end. The drop-off to the west, the usual direction of takeoff, is about 40 feet, the staff report states, and the airport is surrounded by urban development. "Landings and takeoffs at the airport have been likened to aircraft operations on an aircraft carrier," the report says. "There is little or no margin for error."
In a letter to Mayor Richard Bloom, the FAA vowed to use "all available means" to fight the ordinance so that "no aircraft is denied access" to Santa Monica Airport. "What you are considering by this proposed ordinance is flatly illegal as drafted," said D. Kirk Shaffer, the agency's associate administrator for airports.
Shaffer's letter reiterated his belief that the city should consider buying and tearing down houses close to the ends of the runway, a proposal that Bloom called "offensive and absurd."
Several council members said the city would be willing to fight any legal challenge. "This could lead to very significant and costly litigation," Bloom said at the council meeting. "But safety concerns should be paramount."
Brian Bland, a retired Associated Press radio correspondent who has lived near the airport for 11 years, said the community had tried for five years to work with the FAA to devise a compromise.
Residents and city officials deemed as inadequate an FAA proposal that Santa Monica install a safety bed of collapsible concrete at each runway end.
The ordinance would bar Category C and D jets, which would include aircraft with approach speeds of greater than 136 mph. The use of such aircraft has grown immensely in recent years as corporations and individuals have embraced so-called fractional ownership, which allows them to share the costs of owning and maintaining aircraft.
Category C and D jets account for about half of the 19,000 jet takeoffs and landings at the facility this year, said airport manager Bob Trimborn. Overall, the airport this year is expected to have 135,000 takeoffs and landings. Trimborn said the vote was a "fairly significant step forward in the effort to establish a truly safe operating airport here."
He noted that residents were responding to dramatic changes in aviation technology since the early 1980s, when the fleet mix did not contain such high-performance jets. "No other city has ever proposed the banning of aircraft," Trimborn said. "This is fairly new ground. Because of that, it's open to a lot of interpretation. More than likely, it would be decided in federal court."