CASE STUDIES :
Somebody's got to go first. Or, in the case of California's Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO), set a precedent to stay put.
The challenges faced by Santa Monica Municipal Airport nearly 30 years ago aren't that much different from those experienced at many other airports today. Think of Teterboro in New Jersey, or Westchester County in New York, and you're pretty much back to the future. Think about familiar factors such as a vocal minority of new airport neighbors and self-serving political expediency on the part of elected officials, and the threats such pressures pose to your airport.
Santa Monica, with its own rich aviation history, was cursed with encroaching development and rising property values, combined with the uncontrolled noise of a runway that in the late 60's became the world's busiest - at more than 370,000 operations in one year. Those operations on one runway exceeded the count at most of the world's air carrier airports operating off multiple runways!
And in the sixties the business community discovered the first generation of business jets - fast but incredibly noisy aircraft that quickly became the anvil that broke the camel's back as far as the neighbors were concerned. There was simply no comparison between the mellow rumble of DC-3's and the screeching blast of a first generation bizjet.
From its storied days as home to Douglas Aircraft Company and birthplace of the line of "DC" aircraft, and as base to celebrity pilots including Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes, the Seventies brought a turbulent era of anti-airport activism and local government intrusion, if not ineptitude, compounded by numerous schemes by developers to cash in on some of the world's most valuable acreage.
But at SMO a band of tenants, users, and national aviation associations literally took on City Hall, and quite a City Hall it was. Beyond simply folding to community pressures surrounding aircraft noise, some members of the governing body -- especially during the late '70's -- proclaimed themselves downright socialistic in their philosophy regarding property use. Their motivations, however altruistic or ideologically portrayed, however, were really a veil for a plan to reap personally the rewards of real estate development at the airport. Thus they weren't really the least bit different from their politically equally conservative predecessors, who likewise tried to close the airport for development.
Barry Schiff, noted commercial pilot, author, and host of our "Lessons Learned" video, was involved in the Santa Monica debacle from the beginning. He captured the story in "Death of An Airport," an article that first appeared in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Pilot magazine of August 1981.
Following "Death of An Airport" the Santa Monica Airport Association, through a major media, political, and legal campaign, allied with others and finally won the support of the federal government, even after the FAA had previously capitulated. Through a process of mediation and scientific study of the noise problem the neighbors, pilots, aviation businesses, city, and FAA chartered a roundtable working group which eventually developed a plan for the future, and a legal Agreement to implement it. The 1984 Airport Agreement, executed by the City and the FAA, provided a blueprint governing operations of the airport until 2015.
Subsequently the efforts of the same people involved in preserving Santa Monica have helped make it what it became in the nineties: home to a sophisticated aviation museum; a "factory" for homebuilt aircraft; a smorgasbord of eating establishments; and the base for 450 aircraft with an average of more than 600 daily operations.
The Santa Monica of today isn't without its problems. Curfews and aircraft restrictions govern how and when people fly. The primary backer of the museum suffered financial reversals - and thus did the museum. City officials and property developers continue to undermine the spirit of the 1984 Agreement that once allied aviators and neighbors in a plan that attempted to accommodate all interests while minimizing aviation noise. Some FBO's have encouraged the departure of the smaller, quieter aircraft in favor of far louder corporate jets - a violation of the Agreement that has been ignored by the City. And predictably, frustrated neighbors have renewed their call for the closure of this important reliever airport serving a major part of the Los Angeles basin.
But there's still a much greater recognition today of the value of the airport, even among elected officials, that make its existence into the future a little bit more of a sure thing. A visit to this thriving metropolitan resource and its diverse constituencies serving the needs of the community will quickly show what vision, strong advocacy, and willingness to participate in the debate can do -- it can preserve an airport and in the process create a creative, educational, enjoyable, and valuable oasis in the middle of a dense urban landscape.
(Read Barry Schiff's groundbreaking
article on airport preservation from the August 1981 issue of AOPA Pilot
by clicking here)