IT'S 5 P.M. ON LABOR DAY, and Virginia Ernst has already recorded 45 jet flights on her "Jet Emission and Excessive Noise Log." Ernst has grown so proficient, she can often tell the kind of jet about to fly over her West Los Angeles home by the sound and smell.
The Citation, Ernst says, "makes a high-pitched whine like a dentist's drill. You can smell them before you hear them." But it's the G4s - private luxury jets so big they cast a shadow across her single-story house - that are particularly nerve wracking. There have been two so far this day, and with the long weekend winding down, the big corporate-and-celebrity jets favored by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rich and famous should start filing in before sunset.
"My backyard is totally useless," says Ernst, who bought the house just east of the runway with her husband in 1962, when she was 19 years old. "We got rid of the lawn furniture. We can't have anything back there. You had to scrub it to get the black soot out."
For a decade, Ernst, who works at the USC library, has been a key player in an ongoing battle to fight the noise and pollution that comes with living near a once-sleepy municipal airport that has exploded in activity, servicing the booming entertainment and high-tech mecca that is the Westside.
Since 1994, the number of jet operations at the 62-year-old airport has soared from 4,829 to 18,100 per year, according to Santa Monica officials. The real surge came after 9/11, as the very rich and corporate honchos sought a way around long security checks at LAX. Now they face hardly any lines - and they're much closer to their Westside mansions and corporate offices. These jets are bigger too, now that companies like NetJets offer "fractional ownership" as well as leases of large, luxurious jets. And there's no end in sight.
"You can have nothing but a flat piece of asphalt and a guard shack - and you'll still have the limos there," says Bob Trimborn, the Santa Monica Airport manager. "There's some of the most desirable and expensive real estate within five miles of us. It's location, location, location."
Ernst and her neighbors have been fighting to control jet traffic, taking the city of Santa Monica to court, staging protests, backing bills in the state Legislature and lobbying Congress.
Now, a proposal by the Federal Aviation Administration has mobilized residents from West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Mar Vista and helped forge an unlikely coalition that includes Santa Monica city officials, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, state representatives Ted Lieu and Julia Brownley and U.S. representatives Henry Waxman and Jane Harman.
The battlefield is a 5,000-foot-long stretch of asphalt with houses sitting roughly 300 feet from each end, making it perhaps the closest juxtaposition of a busy runway with a residential area in the United States. Neighbors want the FAA to abide by its own standards, which call for 1,000 feet of runway at each end designated as a safety area. The city has proposed 300 feet, but the FAA is arguing for much shorter 155-foot safety areas - including 130 feet of light concrete that helps arrest speeding aircraft, much like a runaway-truck stop.
City officials, as well as neighbors and their elected representatives, note that the federal proposal falls far short and could endanger neighboring residences. "This latest proposal seems a little bit extreme in many ways," says Trimborn. "It doesn't really address the larger and faster aircraft" that could overrun the runway and veer into homes.
"It seems like [the FAA] is more concerned with access and preserving access than with safety enhancement," he says.