AOPA Pilot Magazine - July 2013 - 20
Another nail in the coffin
BY BARRY SCHIFF
Is Santa Monica the next Meigs?
has been writing
for AOPA Pilot
for more than
20 | AOPA PILOT July 2013
THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO I wrote a feature article
titled, “Death of an Airport” (August 1981 AOPA Pilot).
It described how the city council of Santa Monica,
California, had been conducting a war of attrition
against aviation users in an unveiled attempt to close
one of the oldest airports in the country.
Steeped in history and aeronautical lore, the Santa
Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) was where four
Douglas World Cruisers began the first flight around
the world. It is where the first Powder Puff Derby originated and where tie-down spaces were once reserved
for the likes of Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart,
and Wiley Post. SMO had been home to the Douglas
Aircraft Company, and Runway 21 launched almost all
of Douglas’ propeller-driven DC transports on their
maiden flights. Santa Monica had once been the busiest
single-runway airport in the world and played a key role
in the aviation infrastructure of the Los Angeles Basin.
None of this, however, prevented an onslaught of
municipal abuse and harassment against airport users.
The politically progressive city council was an extension
of the Campaign for Economic Democracy, a political
movement dedicated to the destruction of America’s
traditional economic systems. It was a philosophy left
of socialism on the political spectrum, and its declared
goal was to eradicate capitalism and spread the wealth
throughout an egalitarian society. The city’s mayor at
that time said that low-income housing represented the
best use for the 215 acres of airport land. Sound familiar? Not much has changed since.
A group of airport users and activists formed the
Santa Monica Airport Association. Its members made
great personal sacrifices and applied tenacious dedication to fighting city hall. Finally, and with FAA
assistance, the city council begrudgingly agreed to keep
the airport open until 2015. Breathing a sigh of relief, we
believed that we had won the war. We know now that
we had won only a battle. The city has recently restated
its objective to close the airport and has begun waging
another assault in this decades-long war against SMO
(see “Road Warrior,” August 2013 AOPA Pilot).
Using creative accounting, the city claims that
the airport is a financial drain—this is demonstrably untrue—and intends to make up for the so-called
shortfall by instituting punitive landing fees. The new
fee structure is to be implemented August 1 but has
been widely mischaracterized as simply an increase in
landing fees (from $2.07 per thousand pounds of maximum gross weight to $5.48). These fees now will apply
also to aircraft based at the airport, including those used
for flight training—which is unprecedented. (The beneficent city council might waive landing fees for medical
flights, but this has yet to be determined.)
An hour’s worth of touch-and-go landings in a
Cessna 172 will result in a student pilot contributing
more than a hundred bucks to city coffers. Clearly this
would put flight schools out of business—which, of
course, is an intended consequence. Those barely able to
afford owning an airplane at SMO will be forced to sell
or move their airplanes. Transient pilots will be discouraged from visiting and take their business elsewhere.
The truth is that the city hopes that these landing fees
will curtail operations such that its attempt to close the
airport in two years (or severely limit its use by reducing runway length) will meet with less resistance.
Ironically, these landing fees will reduce municipal
income because of the resulting loss of business and
flight activity. The city will compensate by raising fees
even further. The power to tax is the power to destroy.
Other U.S. airports are awaiting the outcome of the
battle being fought at Santa Monica. If this city can get
away with instituting such Draconian fees, other airport
managers will become encouraged to enact similar measures. Landing fees will metastasize to airports all over
the country in a way that could be a death knell to general aviation. Look at Europe and the dampening effect
that landing fees there have had on lightplane flying.
Although AOPA and other organizations are mounting strong efforts to overturn Santa Monica’s new
ordinance, I am concerned about an apparent lack of
outrage from pilots individually. Many with whom I
have discussed this threat simply shrug with an attitude of helpless resignation that flying is simply and
irreversibly becoming too expensive. My theory about
this attitude, however, is that it results from what happens to people when government (federal or municipal)
repeatedly tramples upon their rights. They feel beaten.
Remember Meigs Field? If we cherish the freedom provided by airports from which we can reach for the sky,
it is imperative that we remain energized and resistant.
Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, government must fear
the people for liberty to survive.