Flight School Payoff Plan Shenanigans

As a result of a public outcry and a storm of e-mails sent to City staff and Council members, Staff’s recommendation Item 3-AA (“Flight Training Incentive Plan”) on the June 12 City Council Meeting was pulled so that it could be reviewed by the Airport Commission and subjected to public comment during their June 25 meeting.  The commission’s recommendations on this issue were then to be forwarded to the City Council so that they could decide on the plan at their June 26 meeting.

Among a number of other alternatives suggested was the idea of fitting ‘mufflers’ to flight school planes proposed in my CASMAT post (here).

Yesterday a notice was posted (here) by City Staff that the Airport Commission meeting for June 25 had been cancelled.

Today we see a revised Staff recommendation (Agenda Item 8-D – here) “Flight Training Reduction Incentive Test Program” posted on the City Council Agenda for June 26.  The plan is essentially un-modified, other than the addition of a section explaining why staff believes mufflers are not a viable option at this time, and a promise to continue to look into the matter.

The problem is that once again this plan is about to be decided by the City Council without the opportunity for public comment or a recommendation from the Airport Commission.

Below is a sample of public comments on this issue gleaned from the local press, surely some of these points are worthy of consideration, and we should not subvert the public process and ignore public input in our haste to do something, anything, regardless of if may make sense:

(1) In a story on SMDP (May 11, 2012) Joe Justice stated that it cost him $150 to fly a plane to another airport and back. So the city is planning on covering the entire cost. Meanwhile, the student is also paying $123 per hour for aircraft time (according to the Justice Aviation site price list). The plane would be flying the entire hour if it stayed at SMO, or if it flew elsewhere and returned. So going elsewhere is not actually an additional cost (unless the lesson is longer as a result, in which case the student pays more). In other words Justice is right now making a profit at $123/hr doing flight training at SMO, and the city will now kick in an additional $150 for every flight to another airport. This will become pure profit for the flight schools.

This new subsidy is on top of flight school aviation leases that are pennies on the dollar to commercial rates (subsidized by the city), as well as the fact that all landing fees are waived for flight school planes based at SMO. I’d say running a flight school out of SMO is a lucrative business, thanks to the City and its taxpayers.

Where did this latest idea to solve the flight school problem come from? The answer is it was first suggested as a solution by Joe Justice himself at the Airport Commission flight school workshop back in September 2011. Joe is a smart cookie.

Now the city, as usual, is doing exactly what the flight schools asked for and putting it forward as a city idea to help the community.

(2) There are two possibilities for what happens to the additional income that will accrue to the flight schools from this program.  The first is that it goes into profit for the schools themselves.  Most members of the public would I think find this unacceptable.  The second possibility is that somehow the windfall is passed on to the students in the form of reduced cost.  In this latter case we must worry about the law of unintended consequences.  If the city subsidies result in it becoming cheaper for people to learn to fly at SMO than elsewhere, then we can expect that the result will be a greatly increased number of students signing up to fly, with the inevitable result that there will actually be even more flight activity at SMO than there was before.  This would further drive up the projected cost of city subsidies, and should the subsidy program be cancelled, the result would be that the city had succeeded in making things far worse for the community around SMO as all these additional students revert to pattern flying right here.

UPDATE: This plan was approved by the City Council 4-1 (Bob Holbrook cast the dissenting vote) but there were insufficient votes to authorize the spending.  As a result the measure will now go before the Airport Commission in July and then come up again at the Council’s July meeting.  See news report here.