City Sues FAA For Airport Ownership

SANTA MONICA—The City of Santa Monica filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) and United States government for ownership rights of the Santa Monica Airport.

The City of Santa Monica is taking the FAA to court for control over the Santa Monica Airport (SMO). The city is challenging the FAA’s claim that the airport must remain open indefinitely in a lawsuit filed on Thursday, October 31.

According to the lawsuit, the city has owned most of the land the airport sits upon since 1926 and has retained a fee interest of the land ever since. In 1941, the city leased the Santa Monica Airport to the government under the presidential proclamation of an unlimited national emergency during WWII.

The City of Santa Monica asserts the U.S. government’s lease expired on July 15, 1946 when the government stopped paying the city property rent and that the FAA officially relinquished its leasehold interest of SMO to the city in a 1948 Instrument of Transfer when the war efforts were over.

The public has expressed concerns regarding the airport’s safety and operations since the aviation industry boom in the 1960s. The lawsuit cites a 2010 report by City Council that concluded, “The status quo at the Airport is not acceptable to City residents.” Community members complained about issues such as increased air traffic, noise pollution and fear that aircraft could easily derail and crash into neighboring homes. The public debate over the future of the airport reignited on September 29 when a private plane swerved off the SMO runway and collided into a hangar, killing all four passengers on board.

The City has invoked its civil duty to protect the welfare and interests of theSanta Monica community by enacting various airport regulations over the years such as a noise limit, jet curfew and helicopter ban. The FAA and pro-aviation groups have consistently challenged these ordinances as discriminatory against certain aircraft, which lead to the City signing the 1984 Agreement with the FAA.

The court document states the 1984 Agreement mandated the City to maintain and keep SMO until July 1, 2015—not for eternity, as suggested by the FAA.

City officials have met with FAA representatives multiple times in recent years to convey the public’s concerns and discuss the upcoming expiration of the 1984 Agreement. The lawsuit states the FAA, however, “was unwilling or unable to agree to, or even to negotiate on, any compromise as to the Airport’s future operation,” and that “FAA representatives steadfastly maintained that the City is obligated to continue operating the Airport in perpetuity under the Instrument of Transfer and that no agreements to the contrary could be made outside of the context of litigation.”

The City is therefore suing the federal agency for violating the fifth and tenth amendments and to reaffirm its ownership of the Santa Monica Airport.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) announced that it supports the FAA’s legal assessment of the airport’s status, and says the lawsuit “lacks any merit in law and is another desperate bid by the city to close Santa Monica Municipal Airport.”

According to the AOPA, the airport houses approximately 267 aircrafts and pumps over $200 million annually into the local economy. In a statement, AOPA Vice President for Airport Advocacy Bill Dun said, “The city benefits from the taxes on that revenue, not to mention the exorbitant landing fees that it has imposed. And the airport operates in the black. It has a long tradition of serving the community and providing local aviators with the freedom to fly and a great amount of previous legal research has already shown that it will continue to do so.”

FAA officials are declining to comment on the pending litigation as a matter of policy.