City officials in Santa Monica, CA remain determined in their efforts to shutter Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO), with that battle recently claiming a large flight school at the historic airfield.
Although SMO is owned and operated by the city and has federal obligations to allow aeronautical activities at the airport on reasonable terms, officials have repeatedly worked to implement measures to inhibit access by general aviation, with the ultimate goal of shuttering the local airport.
NBAA recently joined with other SMO stakeholders in responding to a Motion to Dismiss filed by city officials against a portion of a Part 16 Complaint filed by NBAA, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), airport businesses, and other proponents earlier this year at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alleging numerous violations of the city’s federal obligations to SMO.
In their April 11 filing, Santa Monica officials argued that a new leasing policy adopted by the city council in March voids proponents’ claims that the city has failed to make long-term leases available to aviation tenants at the airport, by setting forth standards under which those businesses will be allowed to stay at SMO.
Alex Gertsen, NBAA director of airports and ground infrastructure, countered that the “new” leasing policy, adopted March 22, does nothing to change the city’s failure to comply with its federal obligations to offer such businesses and individuals long-term leases at the airport.
“Month-to-month leases create challenges for both aeronautical and non-aeronautical businesses on the field, such as restaurants, putting numerous local jobs in jeopardy,” he said. In that argument, airport supporters may have something of an improbable ally in the Santa Monica Airport Commission, a body typically opposed to furthering aviation-related interests at SMO.
During a March 15 hearing regarding the new leasing policy, commissioner Lael Rubin was among members who grew noticeably agitated when Nelson Hernandez, the senior advisor to the city manager on airport affairs, could not confirm if Santa Monica officials would grant stable leases to aviation tenants at SMO, or had an appropriate method in place to determine who will be given an opportunity to remain.
“They have a right to apply, just like anybody else,” said Hernandez of aviation tenants. “[It] seems to me that this basically says, ‘apply, but you know what, you’re not going to get a lease,’” Rubin replied. “There is nothing in here that says the city will lease to some aviation tenants.”
In the Part 16 complaint filed in February, airport supporters also accused city officials of creating an untenable operating environment at SMO through “excessive fees and rents,” while concurrently offering preferential terms to a non-aeronautical local college with facilities at SMO. Interestingly, the city’s motion referred to those other key points only in passing, and did not specifically seek to dismiss them.
“Those are rather serious charges that the city has misappropriated millions of dollars, affecting not only aviation interests but the entire Santa Monica community,” Gertsen added. “Statements in the Motion to Dismiss infer that City officials may be conceding that they overreached, and that those policies will be reviewed and the airport reimbursed.”
Meanwhile, city officials remain intent on eliminating aviation-related businesses from their airport. On April 28, Justice Aviation – the largest flight school on the field – accepted a $450,000 buyout from the city to shutter operations. About half of SMO’s existing business comes from training operations based on the field, although the airport’s landing fees incentivize student pilots to fly to other area airports to practice.
That shutdown places a financial strain on remaining aviation businesses at SMO, including the company’s former maintenance provider, Bill’s Air Center. Andres Gonzalez purchased Bill’s in February 2014, one month before city officials refused to renew the business’s long-term lease; since then, rent has been paid month-to-month.
“It was clear that the city didn’t like [SMO] and basically wanted us to go away,” Gonzalez said of the long-term leasing issues. “The city’s attitude is unfortunate, because in a couple of years I’ll likely be able to expand. It’s clear the city will do anything within its power to limit us.”
Although Gonzalez said he expects the field’s remaining flight schools to buy up Justice’s fleet, minimizing his losses in the near future, he and other business owners on the field are extremely concerned by the precedent set by the city’s actions.
Despite his difficulties, however, Gonzalez is optimistic about SMO’s future. “I believe the airport is going to be here for a very long time, but the question is how the city might further restrict our operations,” he added.