July 2, 2010

The battle over business aviation access to Santa Monica Airport (SMO) entered a new phase last week, when NBAA was joined by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) in weighing in on the city’s latest attempt to prohibit certain types of aircraft from using the airport.

The controversy began in 2008, when Santa Monica city officials adopted a ban against Category C and D jets (mostly larger business aircraft) from serving SMO on safety grounds. The city’s move was immediately challenged by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which ruled that the airport did not have the authority to impose the ban, and disallowed it from taking effect until the FAA could further consider the matter, with a decision from the agency being subject to a federal court appeal.

As part of the ensuing court proceedings, Santa Monica officials filed an appeal in 2009 with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit challenging the FAA’s ruling against the city. This past April, Santa Monica officials submitted a subsequent brief to the court, and the FAA submitted its response in early June.

On June 28, NBAA was joined by AOPA in submitting an appeal on an “amicus curiae,” or “friend of the court” basis. The joint brief from the two associations strongly supports the FAA’s position on the matter, explaining that decisions regarding safety are exclusively within the jurisdiction of the agency, and noting that the FAA’s finding that Category C and D business jets can safely be operated at SMO is well-supported by the record established at an administrative hearing conducted by FAA in 2009.

The brief from the two associations also emphasizes that even though Santa Monica has tried to frame the issue as one of safety, the city has a long track record of trying to restrict operations at SMO, and its proposal to ban Category C and D jets should be understood as its latest strategy to limit flights at the airport, and eventually close it altogether.

Moreover, the briefing notes, a ruling for the city could pave the way for restrictions and even closures at airports across the nation, if municipalities are allowed to set their own standards.

The matter is far from resolved. A coalition of community groups has requested permission to file an amicus brief supporting the city’s authority to impose the jet ban, and the next step in the process will be for Santa Monica to file a reply responding to both the brief from the FAA, and the joint filing from NBAA and AOPA. The court will then schedule oral arguments, and likely hear the matter this fall. As amicus parties, NBAA and AOPA will not likely participate in the hearing’s oral arguments, but NBAA will continue to monitor developments and coordinate with AOPA representatives and FAA officials in preparation for the hearing.