City Picks Option for Runway-shortening Project

 - May 29, 2017, 11:40 AM
The city council favors the plan to shorten SMO's runway by removing approximately the same length from both ends.

The Santa Monica city council last week chose one of two options for shortening Santa Monica Airport’s 4,973-foot runway to 3,500 feet, as permitted under a Jan. 28, 2017 settlement agreement/consent decree with the FAA. The city hopes to complete the shortening by the end of the year, although it is not yet clear whether that will include removing the excess runway material or merely marking off the unusable portion of the shortened runway.

At the council meeting, Option B was the unanimous preference, and this would place the remaining 3,500 feet roughly centered on the existing runway, with equivalent amounts of unusable runway—about 736 feet—at each end. While airport proponents decry the idea of shortening the runway, which is expected to cut business jet traffic by 45 percent, there is one advantage to this option: the unusable runway provides an extra safety margin for overruns at each end of the runway.

The shortened runway, however, might not have any effect on at least one of the principal issues—noise—that makes the airport-adjacent residents of Santa Monica and Los Angeles want to close the airport. In a letter sent to the city council before the vote to select the shortening option, NBAA pointed out that the city had previously studied whether reducing the runway’s length would have a noise benefit. The answer, from a study presented to the airport commission on Sept. 23, 1985, was no, according to NBAA. In that study, “the city concluded that doing so not only would have no recognizable benefits, but potentially could result in an increase in noise. In this case, no professional study of the noise—or other—consequences of the proposals appears to have been performed. Thus, legal issues aside, NBAA also respectfully suggests that the city council, at a minimum, should demand far more comprehensive information from city staff before taking any actions.”

The association also urged the city not to pursue runway-shortening actions while an appeal of a lawsuit challenging the FAA settlement agreement and consent decree remains active. The deadline for the FAA to submit documents for that lawsuit is early July, according to Alex Gertsen, NBAA director, airports and ground infrastructure. These documents could either be the actual settlement agreement/consent decree or background documents. “Then the court will set a briefing schedule for the actual arguments,” he said.

It is essential to keep the city from destroying the extra amount of runway before the court rules on the appeal, because once that runway is gone, it will never be restored, he explained, “even if the agreement with the FAA is ruled illegal.” And in any case, the city has long claimed that the runway lacked safety areas at each end. By preserving the entire runway and not destroying the amount left over after the shortening, the city could have its runway safety areas. 

The city also lists the airport as part of critical infrastructure in case of a major disaster, Gertsen pointed out. And the city should retain the extra pavement in case it is needed in a disaster. 

The city does have a reason for wanting to remove the extra pavement—its leaders believe that pilots will wantonly take off and land on the closed sections of the runway. “This is completely unfounded,” he said. The city is contemplating hiring a vendor to install video cameras to monitor the closed runway ends. 

During the council meeting, according to the Santa Monica Airport Association (SMAA), an item that was not on the agenda came up, and this was a resolution “directing staff to plan on destroying unused runway pavement [approximately 1,496 feet] and re-purposing it to other community uses.” The SMAA noted that city staff “was directed to report back at the next council meeting.”

The city claims that its plans to shorten the airport’s runway are exempt from environmental review requirements. Because it isn’t a federal project, no such review is required, in the city’s view. The city also believes that state environmental rules don’t apply, because the change is environmentally minimal, according to Gertsen. But, he added, it’s not a safe assumption that the environmental impacts are minimal, especially considering the added road and air traffic that will be forced to use other Los Angeles-area airports. 

NBAA is considering whether to try to block the runway-shortening action by asking the circuit court to put the move on hold, once the plans for the work get closer to being implemented.

NBAA members are concerned about the imminent shortening of the Santa Monica Airport runway, Gertsen said, especially because surrounding airports will become more congested. “Santa Monica has a reliever designation for a reason,” he explained, “especially in the Los Angeles area. It plays a very important role, and by taking it out as a node in the National Airspace System, it’s going to have a major impact on business aviation.”