Can This Airport Be Saved?

The fight over one of the nation’s busiest single-runway general aviation airports

A classic Stearman flying above Santa Monica Airport. (George Kounis)
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Bob Trimborn, Santa Monica Airport director from 1996 to 2013, occupied the spot between the SMO tarmac and the increasingly virulent Santa Monica City Council. The job got a reputation as one of the hottest seats in general aviation. “Put it this way,” Trimborn tells me about his conversations with other airport managers. “No one ever asked me where Santa Monica is.” As an employee of a city that has only occasionally lent support to its airport, he performed his civic job while walking a tightrope with the feds at the FAA. Stoic and perennially composed, Trimborn stood as a lightning rod for complaints from disgruntled airport neighbors—not to mention Santa Monica’s activists—frequently about issues he wasn’t empowered to remedy. Stelios Makrides, the current airport manager, is in the same boat.

Residents to the west under the departure flight path absorb SMO’s sonic brunt. Cathy Larson says noise is the big issue in Sunset Park, “and a lot of people here feel the jets are the main problem.” Though decibels are measured by monitors 1,500 feet off both ends of the runway, they don’t quantify the subjective aspects of airport noise. “Some people can enjoy a rock concert blasting away,” Bob Trimborn says, “yet when a Cessna 172 flies overhead, it’s upsetting.” He points out that given the half-million residents living within five miles of the airport, the number of noise complaints is relatively small. “Certain people complain a lot and a lot of people never complain,” he says. Anything above 95 decibels triggers the monitors and pulls fines ranging up to $10,000 for multiple violations. Though the standards and penalties are the nation’s toughest, Rubin says noise fines “aren’t a big deal” to high-flying jet occupants. “We’re up against the one percent or one-tenth of one percent of society that uses this airport,” he says. “Are the fines high enough for them? I’ll give you a blanket answer. Hell no.”

During his tenure at SMO, Trimborn instituted changes that include measuring noise not only by level but also by duration, a big contributor to the annoyance factor. He also recommended departing jets alter their climb-out from a steep upward path—which directed more racket toward the rooftops and extended the span of time the airplane was within earshot—to a flatter climb profile at reduced power. “That gets the jets out of the neighborhood’s airspace faster,” Trimborn explains, “with less noise reaching the ground.” As a result, noise violations have been drastically reduced. Still, in 2013, the monitors nailed 126 jets (out of 134 total violations). Ironically, airport rules also exclude large, older prop planes: Despite being designed and built here, even Douglas’ hallowed DC-3 doesn’t get a noise pass.

Santa Monica’s image as a facility where the privileged step from luxury jet to limo makes it a sitting duck for anyone with class envy—even though many of the affected commoners are themselves living in million-dollar homes. Virginia Ernst, who still recalls the late Merv Griffin’s tail number, recites a more current Who’s Who of famous names whose airplanes she’s linked to neighborhood noise and exhaust: “Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, John Travolta, [Bill] Cosby, [Stephen] Spielberg, [Jeffrey] Katzenberg,” she says. “And David Geffen, definitely.” Another frequent flier received a note from Marty Rubin’s CRAAP organization. “We told Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop flying in and out of here in his Gulfstream G4,” Rubin says. “Never heard back from him. Didn’t expect to.”

But studio heavy hitters, Hollywood uber-agents, and aging action heroes are vastly outnumbered by the abundance of SoCal recreational pilots on a budget, transient private planes, and earnest flight school students. Fractional-ownership company NetJets visits frequently to fly more mundane business travelers, most of whose names you wouldn’t recognize. Medevac helicopters and Lifeguard missions dispatch to medical emergencies and rush transplant organs to UCLA Medical Center, while Angel Flight flies low-income patients in at no cost for specialized health treatment. The airport also hosts the West Coast dealership for Cirrus Aircraft and non-aviation entities like the Volkswagen/Audi design bureau. At night, live jazz is on the menu at the Typhoon Restaurant.

Years ago a backyard fence got flattened by the blast from a Challenger jet running up RPMs with its brakes on. A heavy glass patio table soared away, propelled by the exhaust of a Las Vegas casino tycoon’s $35 million Gulfstream. Belatedly, the airport built a wall on the runway’s east end that now deflects jet blast upward, keeping neighborhood tables on the ground and blocking Virginia Ernst’s camera angle for jet exhaust videos. What residents of North Westdale fear the 14-foot wall can’t do is keep the less visible effects of combustion out of their yards and bedrooms.

Community activists promote the impression of airport-adjacent neighborhoods blanketed by a potpourri of pollution. Actual research, however, reports mainly the presence of ultrafine particles (UFPs) limited to areas immediately to the east. Southern California Air Quality Management District and UCLA tests have failed to detect common combustion-related pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and carbonyl. Significant ultrafine particles were undetectable “anywhere other than the area directly downwind of the takeoff area,” says Suzanne Paulson of UCLA’s Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department, who headed the most recent survey. Analyzing air samples taken on the north, south, and west sides of SMO, Paulson tells me, “we could not see any indicators that an airport was there.”

A combustion byproduct, ultrafine particles are smaller than 0.1 micron. If inhaled, UFPs may infiltrate the circulatory system and travel to internal organs. Plumes are disgorged by jets spooling up at SMO—also, by the exhaust of the millions of cars and trucks on L.A. freeways, two of which, Interstates 405 and 10, converge less than a mile from the airport. Paulson’s research isolated a minute-by-minute correlation between jet takeoffs at Santa Monica and highly concentrated UFP plumes pushed by the sea breeze at least 765 yards east into North Westdale. The findings seem bulletproof: When the runway closed for four days for resurfacing, UFP spikes flattened and neighborhood levels plunged to what passes for normal, at least by L.A. air standards.

While the particle status east of SMO seems well established, exactly what level of ultrafines constitutes a health hazard is less clear, says Paulson, a Sunset Park homeowner and member of the Santa Monica Airport Commission. “Currently, no regulations govern ultrafine particles in terms of air pollution and health,” she says, noting that the Environmental Protection Agency has not set ultrafine limits for “anything associated with either roadways or airports.” However, Paulson emphasizes that a growing body of research suggests a link between exposure to UFPs from freeways or airports and a range of illnesses. “We’re really just scratching the surface,” she says. More research is under way.

Justice Aviation has trained pilots at Santa Monica for 22 years. Sitting in his office—which shares space with a full-cockpit simulator—Joe Justice radiates an embattled vibe. “There are strong interests that are highly motivated to squeeze this airport out,” Justice says. He quotes two surveys—one by the city and one by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association—that indicate the majority of Santa Monicans do not oppose the airport. However, he says, “the minority opposition has organized itself extremely well and now has command of the city council.” The council is vocal about its intent to shut down the airport. “At least you have to give them credit for being honest,” Justice says grimly.

If Santa Monica airport is closed, Justice believes, “the precedent will be set that other airports can be shut down by people around them who don’t want them there. General aviation in the United States will follow the path of what’s happened in Europe, where it’s been literally destroyed.” Justice suspects a larger agenda behind efforts targeting jets. “I used to think, ‘Maybe our neighbors would be happy if the airport was nothing but our propeller aircraft,’ ” he says. But if jets are banned, “the rest of us will not be here very long either. Once it’s just us individual pilots with our small planes, we’ll be crushed by land developers who want this property.” That flight school airplanes emit hazardous lead pollution is an article of faith among Santa Monica airport activists. Unlike automotive fuel, avgas formulated for propeller-driven planes has lead additives (see “The Fight Over Avgas,” Aug. 2013). Living under the flight pattern of small prop planes, some neighbors believe the ground beneath their feet is toxic with lead (the reason Virginia Ernst asked me to remove my shoes before entering her house). Despite these convictions, a Southern California Air Quality Management District representative told State Senator Ted Lieu’s Select Committee on Air Quality in 2011 that the lead levels in soil, dust, and air at and near the airport were all well below the federal cutoff for public safety—including the EPA’s new, more stringent standard. The lead gradient declines exponentially the further samples are taken from the runway. Even smack on the tarmac, lead levels barely exceed one-half the permissible standard.

“The EPA says in its report there’s more hazard from lead contamination due to products in the home than what this airport’s producing,” Justice says. He believes the opposition’s current focus on lead from propeller aircraft is just a Plan B resorted to after the latest jet ban effort flopped in federal court. “So now they’re claiming, ‘Wait, the real problem here is actually these little flight school planes.’ ”