If You Don’t Want to Live Near an Airport, Don’t Move Next to One

Santa Monica is a lovely city, home to Shutters on the Beach and Casa Del Mar and of course the famous Santa Monica Pier. And Three’s Company.

Santa Monica has an airport that’s played a significant role in aviation history as well.

Santa Monica Municipal Airport (“SMO”) is a general aviation airport six miles north of LAX. It was home to the Douglas Aircraft Company, and their DC-1 through DC-7 aircraft were built there. The airport was where the first plane to circumnavigate the world took off and landed in 1924. During World War II it was disguised as a fake town to throw off enemies who might wish to bomb it.


American Airlines DC-3 Copyright: icholakov / 123RF Stock Photo

Although residents moved there certainly aware of the airport, they’ve long had a tempestuous relationship with it. In 1958 Santa Monica refused Douglas Aircraft’s request to extend the runway, which would have allowed them to produce the DC8 there. Douglas moved to Long Beach.

Home to a couple hundred flights a day, there are no takeoffs allowed between 11 pm and 7am (8 am on weekends). There are noise and operational limits as well (such as no low approaches weekends, holidays, and during the week starting 30 minutes after sunset). But they’ve been doing whatever they can to get rid of flying there entirely, for instance in 2013 they increased landing fees 165%.

They received a federal grant that obligates the city to operate the airport through 2023, although the was a 1948 agreement that gave the city title to the land which required them to keep it for aviation use in perpetuity as well (the city contends a 1984 agreement trumps this, and in any case that the federal government’s initial taking of the land was invalid so cannot enforce restrictions on the property). The FAA insists the airport remain open.

The city tried to ban certain jets from the airport, but a federal appeals court blocked this in 2011. The city is suing to get out of its obligations and shut down entirely, but since that seems a long shot they’re taking matters into their own hands to make it as difficult as possible to operate there. (HT: @danluttrell)

  • Asking the FAA “to reduce the length of the 5,000-foot runway by 2,000 feet on the west side.

  • “[E]liminating the sale of leaded fuel, adding security, creating a permit system instead of leases for aviation tenants”

  • “[C]reation of a city-run operation to replace two private companies that provide aeronautical services such as fuel, maintenance and aircraft storage.” And these city-run services wouldn’t have to market themselves (or presumably be very efficient, low cost, or convenient).

Or they could, you know, stick to their agreements in principle as well as law and residents could internalize that not only was the airport a known issue for over 90 years but many residents likely got better deals than would otherwise have been possible on their homes precisely because of its proximity.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. It’s not often that I agree with Mr. Leff, but as a residential property owner in Santa Monica, I’ve always felt the same way about the anti-airport residents. They didn’t just build the airport, people! We all knew it was there when we bought our places. So go get a job, hippies, and stop being annoying.

  2. Leaving aside the legality of the matter, what is the value of this airport? On the face of it a small airport that handles a couple of hundred private flights a day seems like an extraordinarily poor use of some of the most expensive land in the US.

  3. For fat cats and the privileged, it is a great airport — for the rest of us who live in Santa Monica it’s a poor use of public funds, space and pollutes the air for us all – not to mention the horrible sound vibrations that sound like sonic booms to those of us close to the flight paths

  4. I agree – the airport was there first. What is left unsaid is that this same neighborhood will then fight any redevelopment on that property because it will add traffic.

  5. Heathrow faces something similar but the restrictions there are causing far greater havoc. The battle for a third runway is still going on while planes continue to be in a holding pattern right over the city due to lack of capacity.

  6. Sorry but the airport was there first. I have zero sympathy for the residents. People moved there knowing this was an issue and there is a legal agreement. As to these little games the city is playing to discourage use of the airport shame on them. Deal with the agreement and move on.

  7. Usually I agree with Mr. Leff but not this time.

    Local communities should be able to control land use, because it can directly affect things like economic inequality, pollution, development, natural resource protection, and quality of life.

    In this case, it seems like the residents of Santa Monica no longer want to have this smallish airport in their beautiful beach city. Today’s residents should be able to review and rethink land use decisions made in 1948, so they can decide if they still work for the community today.

    Mr. Leff, I think much of your thinking is based on a romantic view of the airport and its history, that may be more subjective than objective.

  8. I agree the residents who bought homes adjacent to the airport saved thousands of dollars but as typical in CA they are NIMBY’s. I began flying/working at Santa Monica in the early 60’s when I was a high school student and was a fantastic experience which I will never forget! No one complained at that time but as the property increased in value and the newer generations moved in who have no sense of history and only want what they believe is the best for the City.
    The airport was there first so get over it; the history of this airport is what made Santa Monica into what it is today!

  9. Gary – great comment. The anti-airport people in SMO are both ridiculous and zealots. The airport has been there forever. It’s part of our national airspace infrastructure. While it’s used by “fat cats” as they so like to point out, it’s also used by lots of regular people, student pilots, normal people employed by the industries and companies based there. And it contributes a whole lot to the local economy.

    I can only hope that the votes in SMO get active and get the anti-airport people off of town council. They’ve wasted so many MILLIONS of dollar pursuing this illegal claim, the waste on their part is ridiculous. And still they try to find ways to harm and maim the airport and its businesses (cancelling leases, considering cutting fuel sales).

    Not to mention, what do people think is going to be put there instead? A park? Laughable. Developers are behind this movement because they want the land to build on and make money. Think about the increased traffic. How much more polluting will a couple thousand more cars produce for that already congested area of town?

    I support the AOPA and FAA and hope both keep giving the proverbial finger to this group of whiny west coast people.

  10. Michael – the flight paths have been “that way” for years, so if you live near them, presumably you knew this when you purchased your home. So sorry. You bought with full disclosure. If you didn’t then you didn’t do your due diligence.

    Plus, the paths HAVE been adjusted to minimize the impact on the surrounding community, noise abatement, closures, etc. The airport community has done its part and still they are persecuted.

    Also, if you compare the sound to a sonic boom, clearly you’re not informed enough to have ever actually heard a sonic boom. Let’s keep the hyperbole to a minimum, shall we?

  11. The airport was there first deal with it….this is like people who bought a house near a set of railroad tracks then complain the trains make too much noise. This airport has been in operation since 1919. I highly doubt anyone is still alive that lived near the airport before it was built.

    Therefore, if you bought a house in Santa Monica. You knew that a airport was located nearby so if you want to complain. You better start with the person that made the decision to move. In other words bitch to yourself.

  12. A few notes:

    1) There was very little price break near SMO – nothing even close to 1mn at this point. Also, takeoffs go over venice, not SM – a special sort of FU to the people of LA (Harrison Ford crashed on a city of LA golf course, e.g.).
    2) Yes, airport was there first. But I think 90% of neighbors would be happy if the airport was the same as 1985 – i.e. a GA airport with mostly prop planes (leaded avgas is fine relative to freeway proximity IMO). The real issue is volume of jet operations _soared_. There is no world it’s safe to fly a class D jet into the airport – it would be illegal to build that airport today and it’s grandfathered in.
    As someone who lived in LA just off the approach heading for 7 years I can say it’s really about safety and noise – quiet jets? No problem. Insanely loud turboprops? Shake the entire house. Class D loaded with fuel crashing into the elementary or middle school? Man, that would be an insane tragedy but the airport would be closed quite quickly. I cringe every time I see a large corporate jet crash knowing it’s only a matter of time before it happens at SMO (and no, the city isn’t going to spend the money to annex a neighborhood to make it safe for the 0.1% to land their Citiation X whenever they want). Oh, and whoever suggested there are noise + time limits you are completely wrong. The hotline could care less, planes land all night (“operational issues” of course). And maybe if you’re really unlucky Steve Wynn destroys your patio furniture and writes you a check.

  13. Similar childish games are played by anti-airort activists around the country. They move in to a home that’s close to an airport that has been there for 60 years, then start looking for ways to close it. Happens all the time in towns form coast to coast. That’s one reason why the country has lost hundreds of airports forever. Idiots.

  14. Michael & B –

    A few replies:

    -Closing in 2018? Dream on. FAA recently ruled they’re obligated to operate until AT LEAST 2023 (reference https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/general-aviation/2016-08-16/faa-rules-santa-monica-must-keep-airport-open). Just because your ridiculous, “on-a-power-trip” city council keeps voting for illegal actions does not mean they won’t be appropriately slapped-down by the FAA and feds. And rightly so. That airport belongs to all the taxpayers, not just the residents of SMO.

    -If a majority of people would be “OK” with the airport as it is in 1985, why has the council specifically targeted FLIGHT TRAINING and other basic (non-jet) airport operations? Why do they always cite “leaded avgas?” Jets burn kerosene (JET-A). So I think you’re wrong, you’re dealing with zealots that ONLY solution is a complete closure to the airport?

    -While I agree such an airport would not be approved today, remember the airport was there LONG before the population was that dense. So how would it be fair to punish the airport for the fact that the area around it has grown? Similarly, how can the residents complain again about something that has been there FOR YEARS.

    -SMO is among the most restricted airports in the country in terms of protections for local residents. From it’s own website (https://www.smgov.net/Departments/Airport/Noise_Mitigation/Fly_Neighborly_Program.aspx) “However, the City’s Airport restrictions are among the strongest in the State and Country.”

    Mandatory restrictions: Max noise level, Night departure curfew @ 11pm -7am, 8am on weekends, operational limitations (no touch and goes – this impacts flight training), helicopter training prohibitions.

    Voluntary restrictions: night arrive curfew, VFR Departure Flight paths for noise abatement, Aux Power Unit Limits (power on the ground which can make noise), Thrust reverser use, IFR engine start procedures, IFR hold area procedures, helicopter arrival procedures.

    That’s the MOST extensive list of limitations and concessions made to local residents of any airport I’ve ever seen. The airport has tried to be a good neighbor, but it will never be enough.

    -I personally think after the FAA lost Meigs field to a megalomaniac mayor in a “middle of the night” illegal action, they are very much on the lookout to make sure that such shenanigans don’t ever happen again.

    -You guys are seriously delusional if you think you’re getting a park if the airport were to close.

    Fight on, FAA/EAA/AOPA.

  15. Ron,

    Actually agree with most of what you say – 2023 would be “literally a total victory.” When I owned by house in Mar Vista I assumed “would never close.” I am floored they made it this far.

    * As for “why target flight training,” I think the answer is 1) because they can and 2) because it’s actually pretty unsafe. Like I said, two engine turboprops and older + very loud jets were worst for quality of life. Second concern was always “cessna crash by rookie pilot”(i.e. Harrison Ford could have happened to anyone but he was able to land on Penmar). Third was “crash of category D jet”. And remember, the city DID attempt to ban category C and D landings but was overruled.

    * Mandatory restrictions: like I said . A friend lives on Rose avenue in Venice. Departure procedure of course goes over LA and not SM and calls to the “hotline” go nowhere except to an annual report. Totally ignored – “operational issues” win every time because “safety.” Which just means “you can operate with total impunity.” Same with idling procedure – better yes but still plenty of days with strong Jet A coming directly into the houses while some planes idle for an hour “because sorry.”

    * Remember, “for years” just means “an airport was there for a long time.” The type of traffic has morphed dramatically over the past 40 years and that’s what most object to – especially the people who lived there a long time. Category D jets didn’t exist when the airport was opened and the houses built!

    * For leaded avgas I actually said “who cares” as I think that’s a dumb argument (though it sells well – lead is evil!). I think the freeway pollution is far worse for health and what I wrote was that a GA airport with mostly small prop planes and leaded avgas would be fine. I have nothing agains Harrison Ford but I don’t think you need to sacrifice safety for the sake of business convenience.

    * A park is literally delusional. I cannot conceive of a world where it is a park. Maybe they can build housing for teachers or a school or lease it in a sweetheart deal to the most connected developer. But a park? I don’t even believe it for a second.

    * Would not be built today – what i meant was, if this airport was built today it would not have the authorization to handle category C and D traffic. Not, “could they have built a new airport in SM” in 2016 – the runway is way too short, EMAS is not effective (every time I drove on 23rd/Walgrove I’d think “gosh I hope a Citation doesn’t slide off the end of the runway and into my car!”), and there’s no political will to annex 1bn of land to make “it safe.” So the plan instead is “run it unsafe, fingers crossed there aren’t issues.” I mean, that 2013 pilot error crash of the citation could just as easily have been before the runway, not in the middle of it!

    Anyway, an airport that’s 90% commercial traffic is now a business, not a “community resource.” I think it has grown beyond capacity and beyond what the community wants – but because it’s an all or nothing proposition I think closing it is the only answer the city can pursue. I wish there were a middle ground. But I am also not holding my breath – I put over/under at 2030 for definitive action.

  16. B –

    I will say you’re one of the more reasonable persons to discuss the issue.

    That said, I think the argument can be made that the city failed to properly zone/plan as time went on and ALLOWED development beyond which was safe with a neighboring airport. Now they want to close the airport to rectify their past mistake. Unfair, IMO.

    As a pilot and a national taxpayer, that airport is part of the national airspace system. That infrastructure is paid for by me, other pilots, and airlines, etc. who pay taxes on av fuel, not by general tax funds. Thus, while it’s inconveneint for the locals in SMO, the needs of the system can and SHOULD pre-empt their concerns. What good is an airport in one part of the country if an airport in another part of the country is not available to land at. It all works together.

    Perhaps the answer is for the city to buy out the landowners to make a “safety corridor.” I agree the political will for that is probably non-existent. The safety arguments you make could also be made for a lot of other airports as well. MDW, for example, especially comes to mind.

    A more constructive way for this would be for the airport and town to work together. Unfortunately, from everything I’ve seen, most residents aren’t willing to make concessions on the issue. As for your friend – i get that things still happen. But how does he know there aren’t fines being handed out? Does he have access to all that information? I doubt it.

  17. Also-

    The airport is not commercial. Jets does not equal commercial. In fact, SMO is completely general aviation – they have no commercial service. And yes it is a community resource despite your viewpoint – it brings money and jobs to the area, it provides access to the national airspace infrastructure for those that choose to use it, it provides maintenance and flight training. Just because *you* don’t use it doesn’t mean it’s not a community resource. Just because it’s a community resource doesn’t mean it can’t be a commercial success.

  18. SanFranSky. your employer has decided that your wages are to be cut 75% that your can not use your house between the hours of 7am and 5pm and your real estate taxes are going up 156%. Is that fair? NOPE

    What these NIMBY people do not realize is that they are trying to regulate a “business” that some day will bite them in the a$$ later on. The land is going to become a eye sore and the residents are not going to let anyone build there and then the owners are NOT going to pay any taxes are it. The environmental problems are going to become the city’s problem because the city is going to take over it so that no one builds on it.

    The hard part is that those that oppose it now will move or be dead in 20 years. Then those people will want a airport in their city and the FAA will say Bite me!

  19. The airport provides air access for AngelFlight and other medically necessary charter flights, providing rapid access to area hospitals (including UCLA). The jet charter service for the “1%” allows that “1%” to use their time wisely in order run businesses that provide jobs for the “99%.” When Santa Monica shuts KSMO for good – eventually – it will be an irreversible mistake. Pilots will still fly over the City of Santa Monica (below the Class B shelf) – they just wont have a safe place to land.

  20. Like I said – a nice GA airport for the locals would be fine. But it’s total nonsense to say “KSMO has no commercial service.” First, there is a ton of NetJets-type activity. And second, I consider “a company that owns a jet” to be running “commercial service for that company.” Steve Wynn’s Citation X owned by stock ticker WYNN? Commercial service. Just because it’s not CFR 121 doesn’t mean it’s “not commercial.” Wynn can get a limo to Van Nuys like everyone else. That leaves Arnold flying in and out a few others with their own aircraft. I don’t care what the AOPA says, if you aren’t flying the plane YOURSELF this is commercial service and that’s the firm line in the sand I draw. It’s unsafe ad it’s bad quality of life so a corporation can get a bit of convenience.
    And obviously a safety corridor makes sense, it’s just a multi-billion dollar investment so you can land category C and D aircraft. Why that would ever make sense (to the rest of the tax payers footing the bill), I don’t know. Leave the smaller planes there and call it a (very much) safer day.
    As for violations – I don’t believe it. I went to enough town halls and met enough anti-airport opponents to know that slaps on wrist were the absolute worst (I mean sure, David Riggs got a fine for flying over the pier but really – some guys in Venice had some loud takeoffs?). So self-policing isn’t really a solid option in my experience.
    Finally, sure life flights are nice but at that point they’ll just need to shift to a helicopter. And that happens pretty rarely – more common are angel flights helping move people around, and those can be done from anywhere.
    Anyway, I eagerly await how it’s going to play out. The only thing I know for sure is that the city of SM must really regret taking that $240k grant! I mean talk about pocket change!!

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