FAA Launches Investigation of Santa Monica's Treatment of Cloverfield Airport
City's refusal to renew leases has thrown Down the Gauntlet. Can a City Decide to Close its Airport?
October 5, 2016
The Federal Aviation Administration has announced that it is investigating the City of Santa Monica's policy intended to "starve" the airport into leaving. It has asked the City to withdraw its 30 day Notices to Vacate.
The stakes here are very high. Can a city close a Municipal Airport by starving it of services? Pilots, the FAA and towns all across America are watching.
"The FAA strongly recommends that the city withdraw the notices to vacate until such a time as this matter can be resolved," the agency said, adding their intention to scrutinize the City's airport leasing policy, a proposal to limit fuel sales and efforts to reduce jet operations. Federal courts need to rule first on whether Santa Monica can close it's airport, says the FAA. But "these actions may be causing, and appear intended to cause, impairment of the airport, including, but not limited to, a 'de facto' closure of the airport in violation of applicable law," the agency said in a notification to the city.
The FAA has given the City 10 days to respond to a federal subpoena for documents and information related to its airport policies. Undoubtedly, the FAA, and also other cities across America with municipal airports, are watching to see if affluent Santa Monica can use 30 day notices to evict an airport. Much more is at stake than just Cloverfield.
"This is an overreach by the FAA," Santa Monica Mayor Tony Vazquez said. "Our priority is putting the community first and exercising our rights as owner and operator of the airport. Now the FAA is clearly on a fishing expedition to protect Washington special interests who fear losing corporate profits."
Because of Federal Pre-emption, what the Federal Government ultimately decides to do with SMO is controlling, legal experts say.
Separately, the Los Angeles Times has published an editorial, supporting the Airport and saying it should be preserved. The Editorial Board says there are many "compelling reasons" to keep the airport open. They say that SMO is a "crucial air-transportation artery" in southern California, and that closing KSMO would push business jet traffic to an already-congested Los Angeles International airport (KLAX), where it would compete with commercial traffic.
They also note that the airport supports more than just recreational pilots. Business travelers, organ transplant transportation flights, animal rescue, Angel Flight West, and many others regularly use the Santa Monica airport, says the Times.
The Times says that SMO is not a "frivolous playground for the '1 percenters'" as it is often portrayed by its opponents. Rather, "it is a vital hub in an already crowded air transportation system."
They point out that SMO has never had a fatal accident at the airport itself or in Santa Monica, either to people in aircraft or on the ground, in the past three decades. And, they say that the changing fuel would solve environmental concerns expressed by residents.
Santa Monica has served thirty day notices to vacate, on two companies that service most day-to-day operations at the Santa Monica municipal airport. Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers are the airport's fixed base operators (FBOs in pilot parlance).
They had master leases to operate airplane hangars, sell jet fuel and rent space to flight schools and offices on airport land. Without them, it is no exaggeration to say that SMO operations would cease. Which of course, is the City's endgame.
The 30-day notices to vacate airport premises were served Thursday
The city has refused to renew leases with the FBOs since the middle of last year, so they were operating under short term holdover agreements; i.e. they were month to month tenants. Those agreements were terminated legally speaking, with Thursday's order to vacate the airport within 30 days.
Nelson Hernandez is the City Manager's senior advisor on airport issues. He said federal law lets it replace the private companies with its own city-run operation.
It seems that the City is rushing inevitably toward a showdown with Federal Marshall's on the tarmac. Personally, I'd bet on the Marshalls in a showdown with the City Manager. They're better armed.
Atlantic Aviation, which owns the sole full-service FBO at southern California's Santa Monica Airport (SMO), has filed a Part 16 complaint with the FAA in response to a resolution by the Santa Monica city council calling for the city to take over the airport's two FBOs, which also include avgas provider American Flyers. In the complaint, Atlantic Aviation asked for expedited handling "given the nature of the violations herein alleged and the urgency with which corrective action is needed..." https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/general-aviation/2016-09-14/atlantic-aviation-files-part-16-complaint-against-city-santa-monica