FAA Chief Says Oceanside Airport Should Stay Open

Feb. 9--OCEANSIDE -- The head of the Federal Aviation Administration said in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, that the FAA in all likelihood will not allow the Oceanside Municipal Airport to close, calling it "an important asset for Southern California and in the national system of airports."

The letter from FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, dated Dec. 19, is being viewed by airport proponents as the proverbial nail in the coffin of any plans the city may eventually take to close the airport.

However, City Manager Steve Jepsen said Tuesday the city can't continue to fund something "that is a money-loser" and that other nearby airports could handle the city's air traffic.

The Oceanside City Council voted 3-2 in September to conduct a study on the best use of the airport land. The study, which is mostly being done in-house by the city's public works department, is due for council review in April.

Meanwhile, all improvements and construction at the airport -- including 10 new hangars -- have been put on hold.

"The airport in its current configuration will continue to lose money," Jepsen said, adding that the airport could break even or possibly be profitable with improvements. Public Works Director Peter Weiss last week said the airport could be running as much as $50,000 a year in the red.

"The question for the council is, what do they see the airport being 20 years from now?" Jepsen said.

Blakey's letter was in response to a November letter from Issa, who expressed his support for the airport to Blakey while sharing his concern that the council's September vote meant that the council majority of Mayor Jim Wood and Councilwomen Esther Sanchez and Shari Mackin intended to close the airport down.

"The Federal Aviation Administration has only rarely granted a sponsor a release from its federal obligations sufficient to allow for the closure of an airport, and then only in unusual circumstances," Blakey wrote.

In May 2003, Oceanside purchased 14.7 acres for airport expansion using $2.5 million from a federal aviation grant. Under FAA rules, any airport that receives federal grant money must remain open as an airport for 20 years from the date the grant was received, unless the FAA gives its permission for the airport to close. Issa wrote in his letter that Oceanside has taken more than $4 million in federal airport improvement grants.

Blakey wrote that she believes Oceanside would need to demonstrate that closing the airport and reimbursement of federal money would result "in a net benefit to aviation."

"Because of the important role that this airport plays in the national airport system, the FAA does not anticipate granting any request for release to allow closure of this airport," Blakey wrote. She pointed out in the letter that 70 aircraft are based at the airport, and that there approximately 75,000 landings and takeoffs at the airport each year.

A spokesman in Issa's office confirmed that the representative handed Wood a copy of the letter on Dec. 21.

Ron Cozad, a student pilot who runs a law practice at McClellan-Palomar Airport, said he tracked down Blakey's letter and began e-mailing it to city council members and airport supporters last week.

"We keep hearing about alternate uses for the airport land," Cozad said. "(The city council) just keeps ignoring the fact that the FAA won't allow the airport to close."

Cozad has support for his opinion.

"This has never been a mystery," said Tom Harnish, co-owner of Barnstorming Adventures at McClellan-Palomar Airport. "It's a black and white issue, but some people still want to paint shades of gray around it."

In 2003, Barnstorming proposed building an office and retail facility with a restaurant, community rooms and museum at the Oceanside airport for its operations.

The situation in Oceanside is mirrored in Bakersfield, where that city's council voted in December to try and close its municipal airport and sell the land to developers, citing blight in the airport area and loss of revenue in trying to keep the airport running.

Airport proponents there, according to Bakersfield media reports, are saying the same things Oceanside airport backers are saying: their respective cities have allowed the airports to degrade and refuse to put the effort into making the airports profitable.