The roughly 18,000 yearly jet-aircraft operations (as takeoffs and landings are known) at Santa Monica Airport -- up from fewer than 1,200 in 1983 -- account for about 13% of the airport's traffic. They are about evenly split between jets that are generally slower and smaller and those that are faster and larger.
The airport was designed, decades ago, for slower, smaller aircraft with approach speeds of less than 121 knots (136 mph). Over time, however, the fleet mix has gradually shifted until now the fastest aircraft fly in at speeds as great as 185 mph. They account for about half of the jets using the facility.
For these faster planes, FAA standards call for runway safety areas (similar to runaway-truck ramps on steep roads and highways). In an emergency, a plane can enter the safety area without damaging the aircraft or injuring those on board.
The FAA, however, determined some time ago that the Santa Monica Airport could safely operate without these end-of-runway areas, as long as pilots followed proper procedures.
Despite that assurance, residents and the city, backed by Waxman, have persisted in pushing for safety zones. They note that neither end of the existing east-west runway has any sort of buffer to give an out-of-control plane extra room to stop.
"The basic issue here is that the airport is embedded in a residential neighborhood," said Cathy Larson, who lives in Sunset Park at the airport's western edge. "If a larger aircraft, like a Gulfstream IV, were to overrun, it would end up plowing through several homes and causing not just monetary damage but loss of life."
A number of small-plane crashes have occurred over the years in the vicinity of Santa Monica Airport. In March, television game show host Peter Tomarken and his wife, Kathleen, died when his single-engine plane crashed into Santa Monica Bay soon after departure.
Although residents agree that safety is the highest priority, noise is by far the biggest irritant. The airport's noise ordinance is strict, but, commissioner Tal said, the noise levels are sometimes violated. First-time offenders, who account for many of the violations, get off with a warning. Repeat offenders usually pay their fines.
Then there is air pollution. Los Angeles residents who live just east of the airport say they take the brunt of a tremendous amount of soot, odors and fumes from the jet traffic, particularly as aircraft rev up before departure.
"The jet kerosene is so thick it's like having 10 school buses parked in front of your house," said Martin Rubin, founder and director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, an activist group.
Regional air quality officials recently installed pollution-monitoring equipment in one resident's yard.
The airport has been the focus of years of battles, especially after jets began using it. At one point, the Santa Monica City Council voted to close the facility, then finally agreed in 1984 to a settlement with the FAA that kept it open but imposed strict noise rules.
Some general aviation pilots who have long used Santa Monica Airport lament how the fancy planes have changed the feel of the once homey airfield.
"The character of the place has changed," said entrepreneur Stephen Wyle, who is sometimes accompanied by his son, actor Noah Wyle, in his small plane.
"When they started letting jets in, it became much more of a corporate, business destination," he added.
Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham contributed to this report.
Santa Monica Airport is steeped in aviation history. Records indicate that the first flights took place in 1919 when pilots of early World War I biplanes used the site as a grass landing strip. In 1921, a young engineer named Donald W. Douglas founded his first Douglas Aircraft Co. plant on Wilshire Boulevard. The next year, he built a plant at Clover Field, the site that would become the airport. Soon after, the Army hired him to build planes that would be the first to circumnavigate the globe. He went on to develop a number of breakthrough aircraft, including the fabled DC-3, which first flew from the airport in 1935. By the late 1960s, the company began moving to Long Beach.
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