Santa Monica Airport

Santa Monica Airport has been a bad neighbor, but change is in the air

By Laura Silagi

The latest is that the city of Santa Monica is suing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish the city’s right to control the future use of the Santa Monica Airport (SMO) property after the 1984 agreement with the FAA is terminated in July of 2015. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, asks the court to declare that the City holds clear title to the land. And, it challenges the FAA’s claim that the City must continue to operate the Airport indefinitely, even after contracts establishing the City’s Airport obligations expire.

In the meantime groups of mostly Santa Monica residents have begun an airport to park movement. On December 17, 2013, the Venice Neighborhood Council voted to support a park use of the land if the airport is closed. A park in place of the airport brings all kinds of possibilities to mind. The conversion of an airport to park is not a new idea. It has been accomplished in many places around the world, closest to home at Crissy Field in San Francisco, Meadowlark Park in East Long Beach, and Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley.

A huge park in place of SMO could be up to one-third the size of New York’s Central Park, and the gem of Santa Monica, with playing fields, walking and biking paths, picnic areas, natural habitats, water features, and quiet places for contemplation. It would provide much needed urban park space while providing art studios and other cultural amenities. Such a creation would have a very low negative impact on its Los Angeles (Venice, Mar Vista, West Los Angeles) neighbors, and best of all, we could all use it. Now all that remains is for Santa Monica to win its lawsuit and for their city council to vote for this use of the land

So far many organizations are supporting this idea and the support is growing both in Santa Monica and Los Angeles. Check out for their latest upcoming activities and get involved.

What has been the negative impact of the Santa Monica Airport? The World Health organization recently declared air pollution to be a carcinogen.

As jets idle and take off, they propel ultra-fine particles into the neighborhood to the east of the airport, making it one of the most polluted areas of Los Angeles, and on Santa Ana condition days, when the planes take off to the west, this pollution is propelled into Venice. The Los Angeles Times on December 13, 2013 discussed this situation in an article titled “Big disparities in air pollution detected in L. A. neighborhoods.” The article references a recent UCLA study: “The North Westdale neighborhood of Mar Vista, (just east of SMO at Bundy,) is heavily impacted by activities at Santa Monica Airport… It has possibly the highest concentrations of ultra-fine particles in Los Angeles area. Exposures to these pollutants has been linked to asthma, heart attacks, strokes, low birth weights, pre-term births…”

While ultra-fine particles present health problems, so does lead. All propeller planes use leaded fuel. Take–offs, landings, and practice techniques, such as “Touch and Goes,” by propeller planes spew leaded fuel over our homes and schools. Leaded fuel has been illegal in automobile fuel for thirty years, but not in aviation fuel for propeller planes. Lead ingestion is cumulative, and causes significant risks to humans, especially to the developing brains of children. Brain damage, impaired behavioral outcomes, central nervous system damage, and impaired neurological development are all outcomes of lead poisoning.

Noise pollution from propeller planes plagues our area. Plane noise is above the ambient noise level. Noise above the ambient level affects learning abilities in children, and increases stress and stress-related diseases in everyone. Noise pollution leads to hearing loss, psychological distress and learned helplessness, as noted in a 2010 UCLA Pediatric Study entitled “The Santa Monica Airport Health Impact Assessment.”

Safety and Security: Accidents from planes using SMO happen with frequency, averaging about one every six months and have had a 50 percent fatality rate. Eighty-four accidents have been reported since 1982, according to a list compiled from the NTSB database by Zina Josephs of Santa Monica.

In terms of security, the Santa Monica police department’s Airport Services Unit is responsible for providing uniformed patrols and enforcement activities related to municipal code violations at the Santa Monica Airport. Their work has been shown to be inadequate, as exemplified by the finding of drugs on board planes flown out of Santa Monica. At SMO, people and luggage are not routinely searched as they are at larger airports. SMO thus poses a security issue, as weak security policy could lead to other security breaches, crashes and even allow SMO to become a gateway for future terrorist attacks.

Sustainability:  SMO contributes to climate change because these small, mostly recreational and executive aircrafts are an extremely inefficient way to travel. A few people aboard an aircraft create more pollution proportionately to the many people traveling aboard a large craft. SMO also dispenses fuel. Millions of gallons of fuel are pumped annually from there, adding to pollution.

Who uses and benefits from the airport? There are only about 310 registered pilots in all of Santa Monica. SMO is maintained for a relative few, and has been subsidized by the city of Santa Monica. This raises the question of who is this airport really serving and at what cost to the public’s health and safety?

       Fairness: In order to relieve residents of Santa Monica from the negative effects of propeller planes flying over their homes, the City of Santa Monica has a policy called the “Fly Neighborly Program,” which “highly recommends” that all prop planes fly south over Venice on take-off, and when flying pattern loops, continue east over Mar Vista and West L.A. This is not an F.A.A. policy, it is a Santa Monica policy that protects most of its citizens, and shunts pollution to Los Angeles residents. The city of Santa Monica also has worked with the F.A.A. to instruct all jet planes and propeller instrument flight airplanes to depart over Venice. Santa Monica’s refusal to agree to allow departures to the north over Santa Monica means that there is insufficient space to separate LAX and SMO traffic when departing over Venice. This causes airplanes to idle on the ground waiting to be cleared for departure.

Politicians: At the April 2013 symposium on the airport, sponsored by the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Santa Monica Airport Committee, politicians all spoke of the negative impacts this airport has on Venice in particular. Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin and California State Senator Ted Lieu have said the airport should be closed. U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman said he would support the will of the people. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer spoke of getting involved in the effort to mitigate the negative impacts of the airport on Los Angeles citizens. We need to ask them to be concrete as to how they will help.

In all, the Santa Monica airport is no longer a safe place for Santa Monica and its Los Angeles neighbors. The area’s population is dense; there is no buffer zone between the residents and the airport. In 2008, the FAA allowed the airport to use the shorter runway, which is not long enough for Category C and D (larger, faster jets), which now use it.

The negative impacts cannot be mitigated. “Land Use is a Health Issue,” said Dr. Richard Jackson, School of Public Health, U.C.L.A.  This land could be put to a truly healthy use, like a park.


Above: aerial view of Santa Monica airport

Categories: Santa Monica Airport