Judge Blocks City’s Jet Ban

by Brian Bland, FOSP Board member and FOSP Airport Committee member

A federal judge has blocked the City of Santa Monica from enforcing its ban on the fastest kinds of jets using Santa Monica Airport (SMO), at least temporarily.

The ban, unanimously approved by the City Council, was to have gone into effect on April 24. The Federal Aviation Administration filed a cease-and-desist order against the city and went to federal court to ask for a temporary restraining order. Judge George Wu declined to issue the order without a hearing, which was held April 28.

Wu said he wasn’t sure whether or not he had the authority to judge the merits of the city’s case, and instead made his ruling to temporarily block the ban based on his interpretation of the legal procedures involved. He agreed to be briefed further on the case, so the battle will resume in his downtown Los Angeles federal court on May 15 after both sides file additional written arguments.

On the procedural question, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said the city’s agreement with the FAA does give the city power to exclude unsafe categories of planes. The FAA insists the agreement gives the FAA the power to decide what’s safe and that operating C and D aircraft at SMO is safe, despite the fact the airport does not offer the safety requirements ordinarily required for C and D operations. In other words, the FAA reserves the power to grant exceptions to its own rules.

Despite granting the FAA request for the temporary restraining order, Wu did ask several questions about the merits of the city’s ban, e.g., how many Class C and D aircraft have been involved in overruns at SMO. The answer, so far, is none. But City Attorney Marsha Moutrie pointed out that other overruns at the airport, involving smaller, slower, planes, would’ve been disasters had they involved the faster, larger, jets. Wu replied that those jets are generally regarded as safer, in part because they’re usually piloted by professionals.

Wu also used the canard that “category C and D planes have used the airport safely for years.” That statement ignores the fact that the number of the bigger, faster, jets has increased exponentially since the FAA first allowed them in. Now there are nearly 19,000 such operations at SMO every year, and that figure may grow.

Any argument on merits of the ban must also consider the effect an accident would have at the uniquely situated SMO. Also relevant: accidents such as the 2006 runway overrun in Carlsbad, California, that killed four people and the 2007 overrun in Conway, Arkansas, that killed two people. Both accidents involved runways of about the same size as at SMO and planes like those targeted by the ban. Also in 2007, a jet in that category overran a Santa Barbara Airport runway, but no one was hurt because that facility has runway safety extensions, which SMO does not. All three of these accidents would’ve had even more tragic consequences had they occurred at SMO due to the proximity of two busy streets and hundreds of homes.

Moutrie cited the opinion of former National Transportation Safety Board chief Jim Hall that the C and D aircraft should be banned from SMO because they present a “serious risk of injury and death,” given the airport’s configuration: runway length, lack of safety overrun areas and the proximity of homes.

A federal attorney representing the FAA argued that the ban would do “irreparable harm” to the jet operators and aircraft-support businesses. Moutrie said the real irreparable harm would be suffered by residents if a jet should overrun SMO’s runway and plow through dozens of homes. Moutrie told the judge the city is being told, by implication, that the only way to show its ban has merit is to wait for the inevitable day when a Class C or D jet does overrun the runway. The judge’s response was that the legal battle with the FAA will go on despite his restraining order. On that, he was absolutely correct.

The FAA’s insistence on going to court rather than respecting public safety has now cost the city its Airport Commission chairman. Mark Young has resigned because he works for the U.S. Attorney’s office, which creates a conflict of interest now that the office is the arm of the government being used to fight the city’s jet ban.

We’re sorry to lose Mr. Young, who’s done a great job.

(Four FOSP board members attended the court hearing).

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