Santa Monica, Calif. lost its long battle with FAA

By Benet Wilson
SantaMonicaterminalSANTAMONICAAIRPORT.jpgThe city of Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 21 lost its long battle with FAA over the city’s effort to prevent large business jets from landing at Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the city’s petition.
The court ruled that FAA was not being “arbitrary and capricious” when it said SMO’s ban would make the airport unavailable on “fair and reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination, to all types, kinds and classes of aeronautical use.”
Randal Fiertz, FAA’s director of airport compliance and field operations, says he hopes this is the end of “a very long” process. “But the city can appeal the decision back to the court of appeals or to the Supreme Court, and we will carry on if necessary,” he says.
In March 2008, the Santa Monica City Council approved an ordinance banning larger, heavier business jets from SMO (BA March 31, 2008/4). This caused FAA to issue an “order to show cause,” giving the city 10 days to produce information why the agency should not pursue enforcement under Part 16 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, the section that deals with the responsibilities of airports and airport sponsors.
A month later, FAA issued an interim cease-and-desist order, which called on Santa Monica city officials to set aside an ordinance prohibiting Class C and D business jets—those with approach speeds greater than 121 kt.—from operating at the airport, warning it would use “all means” necessary to resolve the issue (BA, April 28, 2008/12). The interim order reiterated FAA’s arguments detailing why it believed the ban was unlawful, including the fact that SMO accepted federal grants, thus obligating the airport to make the facility available on “reasonable terms, and without unjust discrimination.”
In May 2008, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a preliminary injunction preventing the city from enforcing the ban at SMO (BA, May 26, 2008/16). The court acknowledged the city’s safety concerns in adopting the ordinance, but said the local government had not provided a persuasive argument that FAA’s process of issuing the cease-and-desist order was flawed.
The Court of Appeals concluded that FAA’s intermediate conclusions on the ban were based on substantial evidence. “The only question that remains is whether those conclusions support the FAA’s ultimate conclusion that the ordinance violates Grant Assurance 22,” which requires the city to make the airport available “for public use, without unjust discrimination, to all types, kinds, and classes of aeronautical uses.”
In its latest decision, the court wrote that FAA concluded that the large aircraft ban at SMO was inconsistent with the city’s contractual obligations to the federal government to make the airport available for use on fair and reasonable terms. It also found FAA’s decision was not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with the law, so the city’s petition for review was denied.
The significance of the outcome for FAA is that it stops the city from implementing the ban at SMO, Fiertz says. “Another outcome, which is very important to us at the airports division, is it upholds our grant assurances,” he adds. “The court’s decision was quite clear that the action Santa Monica was trying to take was inconsistent with its contractual obligations. And the court also affirmed the analysis done and decisions made by FAA in regard to Santa Monica. We were able to support our actions.”
“We haven’t had opportunity to review the decision, speak with the city council or outside council, so it’s too soon to say what the next step will be,” says Kay Vernez, spokeswoman for the city of Santa Monica.
Photo credit: Santa Monica Municipal Airport
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Copyright © 2011 Aviation Week, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies.

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