By now we all know that the City of Santa Monica and the FAA have reached a historic agreement (see here) to close down Santa Monica Airport (SMO) by the end of 2028 while shortening the runway immediately.
Both the residents and aviation interests were taken completely by surprise by this development which was negotiated in secret over recent months/weeks. Outrage has been expressed on both sides, and no doubt will continue to be expressed for some time. Now that this appears to all intents and purposes to be a ‘fait accompli’, we need to pause, take a breath, and evaluate where we find ourselves. So in this post I want to try to put what happened in a larger context. No doubt as has happened in the past, some will interpret my pragmatism unfavorably, but so be it, here is what I think.
On the community side, the 2028 end date is indeed a bitter pill to swallow, but as in all things, there are plusses and minuses to this decree viz:
- The fight is over and we won! The writing is on the wall and aviation opposition is pointless.
- We shorten the runway this year and that stops JetSuite-X and many others
- We can form an FBO, and when we do (if not before), Atlantic and American are gone.
- We deal with most jets and JetSuite-X right now
- All the existing lawsuits are now moot. The City saves at least $4M (possibly twice that) in legal fees etc. Future aviation lawsuits have little if any chance of success.
- We have certainty now and can plan the great park, including get a park bond, financing, and designs for the whole thing ready to go day 1.
- This doesn’t stop things like requiring mufflers, installing security, pattern flying, and all other mitigation efforts
- We can all get on with our lives, we have certain victory, BUT we have to wait a long time for the whole enchilada
- 2028 is a very long way away (although I believe full closure will happen before then)
- The city will have to run the airport at a loss for a decade (since landing fees will be greatly reduced)
- There will still be planes and some jets flying for many years
- Leaded fuel may remain until closure
- Flight school activity and leases may continue also
- A lot of people will be (and already are) outraged and/or disappointed
- This delays the full 200 acre ‘great park’ until 2029
But lets look at this development in the context of the larger war that has played out regarding SMO. The truth is that this day, or one very much like it, was inevitable as soon as Measure D was defeated and LC passed in the 2014 election. The very fact that D (see here) was placed on the ballot by the national aviation lobby sent us a clear signal that despite their bluster, they and presumably also the FAA, were well aware of the significant risk of losing were the issue to play itself out in the courts. To forestall this, Measure D attempted to bind the City’s hands for ever by deceiving voters that it gave them a choice, whereas in truth it did the exact opposite, and would have kept the airport open and growing forever. The antidote to D was Measure LC, placed on the ballot by Council, and fought for by a coalition of neighborhood groups opposed to D and in favor of LC.
With the resounding defeat of D, the aviation lobby had not only accomplished the exact opposite of their intent, but had also achieved what might otherwise have been impossible, they had enshrined in the City Charter, through LC, that only park and recreational space could replace the airport should it close. Such a miracle one could not have hoped for back when this all started.
By the way, thank you aviation lobby, we couldn’t have done it without you! In future conflicts with other Cities, I am sure you will now keep in mind the law of unintended consequences….
Thus it was clear that future aviation attempts to deceive the populace would have to fight the idea of a ‘great park’, a very difficult proposition at best. So by early 2015, the aviation lobby knew full well their last remaining tactic was to rain down a firestorm of litigation upon the City in order to wear it down and hopefully delay, perhaps even avoid, the inevitable. Somewhat disingenuously they simultaneously started a vigorous PR campaign to portray themselves as the “good guys”. That campaign continues still.
The firestorm process started shortly after their election losses, and has picked up pace ever since, to the point where prior to last Saturday, the City was engaged in half a dozen different legal disputes relating to SMO simultaneously. The JetSuite-X proposal for commercial operations would simply have added more to the total had it not been forestalled by this agreement. The firestorm would inevitably have continued for many years to come, costing the City huge amounts of money to defend.
Fortunately for us all, as before with LC/D, the aviation industry failed to understand exactly how different this City is from most. Despite the rising tide of lawsuits, the City continued undeterred, fighting each suit as it arose, while simultaneously continuing with other measures including going so far as to formally call for complete closure by 2018. Few City’s have the will or the budget to fight such an onslaught, so while the aviation tactic may at first blush have made sense, once again they picked the wrong City to use their strong arm tactics on.
In recent years, there have been two great battles in this SMO war. The first was the D/LC battle which we won in November 2014 after seven months of effort. The second was the litigation firestorm which was decided in our favor after two years of the legal ‘blitz’ with last Saturday’s announcement.
At some point, probably around the middle of last year, it no doubt became abundantly clear to the FAA that the City was never going to back down, and that ultimately the issue was likely to finish up in the Supreme Court where the idea of the federal government forcibly taking land from a City despite the Feds having never owned that land was unlikely to be received favorably. Defeat on the Western Parcel would likely have come earlier than that.
Bottom line is the FAA knew there was a good chance it would lose in court and couldn’t afford to create a legal precedent. That is why a deal was out there.
“…and this Agreement has no precedential effect as to any other dispute between the Parties or between either the City or the FAA and any third party. This Agreement is made in light of the unique circumstances of this case…”
Why couldn’t it afford such a precedent? Because there are literally hundreds of airports watching what happens at SMO in the hope that it will set precedent that will allow them to retire underused or unwanted airports of their own. By entering into this decree with Santa Monica, while stressing the ‘unique’ nature of the City’s situation compared to all others, the FAA has avoided what I estimate to be a 75% chance of losing in Court and creating a precedent that might lead to a stampede. Once D was defeated, it was clear to many of us that our next task was to work with the City to bring the FAA to a realization of this reality, knowing it would then act in its own interests, and thereby in ours, to end things without a legal morass. Such an event would allow the City an opportunity to strike a favorable deal to end it all. The Airport2Park Foundation was formalized at this time. This critical nexus has now happened.
Of course we are all armchair quarterbacks, quick to point out where and how the deal might have been better if only they had asked for this or that, but none of us were there, and we cannot know how this actually played out on the ground. To think that we the public could have been a party to such a discussion without dooming it inevitably to failure is simply naive. Talk of subterfuge and betrayal based on such non-inclusion is thus misguided.
Lets play that out for a second, suppose the City had brought the agreement before the community and asked them what they thought before signing it. Firstly the arguments would never have ended, and all would still not be satisfied, indeed if history is a precedent, hard line advocates for continuing the legal path would likely have brought additional legal actions to try to stop the agreement, as I understand they have in fact done. However, such attempts are unlikely to succeed given mandated collaboration between FAA and City to defend the agreement (see below). Secondly, and far more seriously, the cat would have been out of the bag and the aviation lobby with all its resources would have made quick work of finding a way to close such discussions down forever. This would have been a bad outcome both for the City, the community, and the FAA, while the aviation lobby, would of course claim a great victory. So it is clear why secrecy on such discussions was so important. Without it, we would simply have lost this opportunity for victory (albeit delayed) and peace. No, it was always the case that this discussion had to be done in secret regardless of if we like it or not.
Boiled right down, the tradeoff between taking the deal and fighting on in court can be summarized as follows:
- 100% closure of Western Parcel/shortened runway this year
- 100% closure of airport by or before 2028
- Airport may continue in some reduced form until 2028
Continue Legal Fight:
- 75% closure of Western Parcel by 2019
- 75% full closure of airport by 2023
- 25% chance airport never closes
We can quibble about the percentages and clearly there are many more potential paths in the legal network, but the basic tradeoff remains the same if you game out these alternative futures (which I have – see here for detailed diagram):
Its a tough choice, and I don’t envy the Council having to make it. However, I cannot truly say in the heat of battle that I might not have made a similar choice given the tradeoffs, even though I strongly dislike a number of the details in the agreement. I suppose with any resolution, mixed feelings on both sides are inevitable. It seems to me significant that all those with legal backgrounds that I have spoken to, both in the Council or otherwise seem less enthused about pursuing the legal outcome all the way, than those without such training. Absolute certainty usually trumps ‘a very good chance in court’. The 4-3 Council vote likely reflects this.
Some raise the risk that with a long timeline, the makeup of the Council may change in the future in such a way that they don’t close in 2028. However, I think that is a small risk, and would have existed anyway if we’d pressed ahead with the litigation route. Likely far more so with continued legal costs enabling a backlash with the help of the NBAA/AOPA/SMAA public relations machine. This worry should be quickly put to rest by Council by formal actions moving forward, and by their continued support for implementing and preparing for the ‘great park’ to come, so allowing us to start digging on day one. Moreover, by that time the airport will likely once again be making dramatic losses since without the jets, landing fees will no longer cover running costs, especially when one adds in the costs that must now be incurred by the City to shorten the runway and add the safety zones (since of course we can’t take FAA money to do so). The airport, once shortened this year, will no longer make economic sense any way you look at it. Why then would a Council keep open a underutilized, polluting, loss-making relic in preference to a great park? It makes no sense.
To be honest, I was not looking forward to another 5-7 years of arguing with aviation proponents and fighting to keep things going our way. That would inevitably have been our future. Now we can all relax, get on with our lives, enjoy the benefits of our lovely city, and mostly just keep an eye on things to make sure the City is still doing all it can to mitigate remaining impacts. Many of us are getting too old to keep fighting indefinitely at the level we have been thus far, and we all have other things that call for our time and focus. No doubt a new generation would step up to fill our shoes, but now they won’t need to. For me, spending 7 months virtually full time fighting first the signature gathering campaign, and then the Yes on LC, No on D campaign was truly exhausting and traumatic. Do any of us really want to carry on like this for another 5-7 years, because thats what it would have been? The City budget impact tragectory from mounting SMO legal costs was also unsustainable long term which could also have derailed our cause.
But step back and look at it from the other guy’s side…
From their perspective it must fee like their god just abandoned them! That has got to hurt WAY worse than anything we might be feeling!
As we all know, aviation advocates have always been certain the FAA would protect them forever, and that certainty drove their insufferable arrogance during LC/D and all the way up until last Saturday. Now that arrogance is utterly gone! Even organizations like NBAA preface their bluster now by phrases like “if any other avenues remain to us”, and ridiculous memes like “Trump was blindsided and will fix this” serve only to underscore their realization that pretty much every other avenue to reversing this in their favor is now closed.
Whatever steps we take next, and we will of course continue our mitigation efforts, our opponents will inevitably dwindle rapidly with time. Those remaining will be demoralized hard liners without any real hope. Never underestimate the positive benefits over time of a demoralized opponent. No rational businessman would put more effort into fighting this decree or the closure of SMO. Today’s JetSuite-X move to cancel flights is just the first example. There will be more, as this story also in today’s news portends. If aviation interests choose to bring more suits via Part-16’s or in other courts, the decree itself forces the FAA and City to jointly defend the decree against all onslaughts viz:
“The Parties agree to vigorously and actively defend this Agreement, any resulting Consent Decree, and all terms embodied therein as fair and reasonable, to vigorously and actively defend the same agains any challenge by any individual or entity…”
Thus with all legal avenues essentially shut off, and having already poisoned the well (as far as going to the people of Santa Monica) through their behavior prior to and during LC/D, it is hard to see anything realistic our opponents can do to stop or reverse this. Game Over. Besides which, as we have seen above, the FAA doesn’t want it to stop as this would bring back the likelihood of losing and setting a disastrous (for them) precedent.
This is why I believe full closure will actually be achieved earlier than the decree anticipates.
That ain’t so bad. Looked at from this larger perspective, we should all probably be celebrating despite our considerable misgivings.
Yes, its far from ideal, but it is absolute, almost irreversible, victory!
Maybe some of us can’t bring ourselves to say “thank you” to our City and Council for doing this, for making the hard choices so that we don’t have to, but it seems to me we at least should not be castigating and threatening them for having done so.
Time to get on with our lives and start planning for the great park…