Did Uber-style charter flights kill Santa Monica Airport?

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After decades of legal wrangling and protests, Santa Monica officials have finally got what they wanted. Their city’s airport is closing.

When a charter company named JetSuiteX cooked up plans to “Uber-ize” aeronautics, offering low-cost seats on private jets flying out of Santa Monica Airport starting Feb. 6, little did the company expect it would cause the airport to close!

But this past weekend, after decades of struggle, Santa Monica reached an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to shut down the almost century-old airport in about a dozen years from now, and to shorten the runway that enables jet flights, right now.

And JetSuiteX seems to have helped bang the final nail into the coffin. Rick Cole, City Manager who was present at the negotiations that took place in Chicago, told us: “This was one of the real imminent threats that influenced our thinking in entering into the consent decree. The Uber and Lyft model that’s applying to automobiles is now being applied to the air and it’s becoming very inexpensive for people to be able to use jets in small airports. And we’ve been seeing a real increase in jet traffic and the threat of much more very soon. So as a way to ward off the threat, it was important for us to shorten this runway.”

As a result, JetSuiteX and the city reached a standstill agreement on Feb. 1 to hold off on providing the charter service.

Check out this DnA to hear from elected officials, city staff, the CEO of JetsuiteX and local activists who’ve fought for years to replace the drone of overhead airplanes with birdsong. 

Airport supporters and the FAA have long argued that Santa Monica’s airport is a crucial air-transportation artery in the region — serving emergency relief needs well as the business and entertainment community.

And residents in South Santa Monica had long lived with little Cessnas and biplanes and propeller planes buzzing over their heads.

But periodic accidents close to people on the ground — like when actor Harrison Ford crashed his World War II-era private plane into Penmar Golf Course in Venice — aroused growing anxieties.

And then what really enraged locals was the rise of larger class C and D jets taking off and landing at the airport — on a runway not long enough to safely operate those jets.

The City says the FAA created a waiver of their own rules to allow that to happen. By doing that, did the FAA push Santa Monicans too far?

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View of Airport Park at the south end of Santa Monica Airport (photo courtesy Canyon News)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Joe Lawrence, interim city attorney who headed up the negotiations with the FAA, says:

“The city over time certainly tried to change the way the airport operated. We tried to limit the large jets from operating there. The FAA sued to prevent us from doing that. That was unfortunate to say the least… And so by failing to achieve a reasonable resolution of disputes earlier, you get to hardened positions and ultimately you get to this compromise which probably many in the FAA don’t agree with, but they’re going along with.”

Celebration was in the air Saturday at Santa Monica City Hall. But with one huge battle won, do the smaller battles now commence?

After all, Mayor Ted Winterer pointed out, the land is enormously valuable: “We will be able to regain local control over 227 acres of land within the Santa Monica borders. I wouldn’t begin to know how to estimate what that’s worth. Two billion, three billion dollars? And. . .  that is a windfall for all the residents of the city.”

A windfall for the city that will be used exactly how? Well, the majority of Santa Monica voters want to see it turned into a park. This they made clear at the ballot box in 2014 when they passed Measure LC, mandating that if the airport were to close, it had to be used for open space, recreation and/or cultural uses… unless voters approved otherwise.

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Tempelhof Airport in Berlin now serves as a public park (photo courtesy Top10Berlin)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The already have a seven acre Airport Park on the south side of the airport. This is already being expanded by another 12 acres to a design by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, designers of LA’s Grand Park. Now the city can shorten the runway and add additional park space before 2028.

According to Frank Gruber of the advocacy group Airport 2 Park, “in the meantime the city is going to do something incredibly innovative which is to open up the asphalt to people to use as a park, like at Tempelhof in Berlin, where they’ve taken giant amounts of asphalt and turned it into a park that people love for everything from roller skating to skateboarding to cycling and just walking around.”

The question remains: is a park the best use of a large piece of valuable land in a city with a shortage of housing, especially affordable and workforce? This piece of land was once itself an “affordable” neighborhood of homes built for blue-collar workers at the Douglas Aircraft Company. The properties in the neighborhood now known as Sunset Park stand to vastly increase their value by closing the airport.

“When you improve the quality of life, that does raise property values,” says Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole. “But it would be counter intuitive to say the best way to promote affordable housing is to not promote the quality of life. [We have] policies on rent control, on inclusionary housing, and on rehabilitating and acquiring older rental properties so that they can be preserved as affordable. That’s part of the DNA of Santa Monica. And today 70 percent of our residents are renters and our council is really committed to protecting their rights.”

Frank Gruber, a supporter of smart growth in Santa Monica, adds that “the housing issues on the west side of L.A. are not solved by turning brownfield sites like this, that are publicly owned and available for parks, into housing, because if you’re going to increase the housing density and build workforce housing. . . you need park space. You cannot expect to have the kind of urban density — the elegant density that our former mayor [Antonio Villaraigosa] in L.A. talked about — without having the amenities like parks that people need and deserve.”

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What happens to the cultural venues at the airport, such as the art fairs and other cultural events at Barker Hangar (photo of an installation at this year’s Art LA Contemporary by Frances Anderton.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But the elephant in the room remains: how exactly will the park be paid for? And what happens to Barker Hangar, the Museum of Flying, Santa Monica College art classrooms, and the other cultural amenities there right now?

Mayor Ted Winterer told DnA: “I really suspect that people in Santa Monica would never vote to approve a large residential development or any of the other things, certainly not an office park. Now that said, as the aviation businesses leave, that frees up a lot of existing space there, the hangars and other buildings; that sort of office space is very much in demand. We just leased actually a fair amount of square footage to Snapchat at the airport and they would like to have more space there. Our thinking is when we’re able to lease to those higher-paying tech businesses we could use that revenue to underwrite the cost of the new park. Or we might have to go to other financial markets who are issuing a bond or something else for part of the capital costs. But certainly the revenues of the rents pay for the operation of the park, I would imagine a couple, three times over.”

Not everybody is thrilled to see the airport close down. Some Santa Monicans simply enjoy the airport — after all, it’s pleasant to watch the little planes take off — some enjoy its easy access to private jets and recreational flying, and for others, it is business.

JetsuiteX, the charter company that precipitated the negotiations with its plan for an Uber-style affordable small jet service, currently flies in and out of Burbank, Concord, San Jose, Las Vegas, Bozeman Montana, and was about to launch in Santa Monica next week. Will it simply curtail the business or take it elsewhere?

Santa Monica airport is a boon to business flyers and a blight for nearby residents (photo: Frances Anderton). (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Alex Wilcox is CEO of JetSuiteX, and criticized what he calls an astonishing “back room deal,” made by Obama-era lawyers at the FAA just before the Trump administration commenced. He says the company had sold over 2,000 tickets. Interest was particularly high, he says, from the local tech companies, including Snapchat which has taken space at the airport in the very same building as JetSuiteX.

But should he have been surprised when he knew residents have wanted the airport gone for years?

“The City of Santa Monica could vote to close the interstate freeway, the I-10 freeway, but that wouldn’t make it happen. Some things are federal domain and some thing are local domain and the airspace and highways are federal. So it was shocking and very unprecedented for the federal government to give back land to a locality and to agree to allow a locality to close its airport,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox questions whether the consent decree will withstand legal challenges. He also rejects the claims of airport opponents that it is noisy, unsafe and polluting:

“With respect to noise, the jets that we fly are quieter than small propeller planes which don’t climb as fast and tend to hang around the area. . . In terms of safety, there’s never been a civilian on the ground killed in the history of the airport in last 200 years. . . And as far as pollution, it’s extremely cynical because there are people on my Facebook page that are posting about how much they hate airplane noise but on their Facebook page there are pictures of them in Honolulu, Paris, South America. These clearly are people that use airplanes routinely and regularly but they just want to export whatever pollution comes out of airplanes to the residents of Inglewood rather than the residents of Santa Monica.”

He adds, “what they’re actually all looking for is this an increase in the local property values. If you have a house next to Santa Monica Airport and it closes you probably just doubled or tripled the value of your house. And that’s what this is really about.”