A proposal to change the flight path for pilots approaching Santa Monica Airport in inclement weather is either one of the best things that's ever happened to the airfield or one of the worst, depending on whom you ask.
Airport and federal aviation officials say the plan, which would allow planes to lock onto a signal from the nation's busiest single-runway airport, will make the skies safer and generate less noise for residents.
But neighbors to the east of the airport, especially in well-heeled Cheviot Hills, are livid because the new flight path will cause planes to fly directly over their homes.
"Our neighborhood was not in the flight pattern before, so you can imagine that after spending a good deal of money on our homes, we're not very happy to have the pattern moved over our heads," said Mindy Gaster, president of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn.
Earlier this week, Federal Aviation Administration officials held two public hearings on the proposed flight path. Nearly 600 people attended the two meetings and nearly all of them oppose the plan.
"There's air pollution and noise pollution, and don't forget we've had two fatal plane crashes in the last year," said Jim Donaldson, chairman of the Northwestdale Neighborhood Assn., which includes homes directly east of the airport's runway.
Airport Manager Tim Walsh said aircraft flying during poor weather currently follow an airport radio beacon called a VOR. The beacon directs the planes over high buildings in Century City--so high that the planes must circle the airport so they can lose enough altitude to land.
Under the proposed change, approaching planes would be directed by a more advanced beacon system known as LDA, or Localizer Directional Aid. The $150,000 system, which would be installed at the east end of the airfield, would guide planes in over Cheviot Hills, on a path 15 degrees south of the current course, which passes over Rancho Park.
Walsh said the new flight path will be safer because it will eliminate the need for approaching planes to circle. "They can fly straight in on a safe, stepped-down approach with a constant power setting," he said.
Residents complain that the new route features a lower minimum approach altitude, the lowest point at which a pilot can decide to abort a landing. Walsh, however, said pilots will not fly as low as the minimum approach--550 feet under the proposed route, compared with the current 750 feet--until they are within a mile of the airport. Also, pilots will be able to descend more gradually over a longer distance since the new course avoids tall buildings.
An LDA and the southerly approach were actually in use for several months last year, but the radio beacon was damaged during the Northridge earthquake. It has not been used since, and the airport activated its old radio beacon and approach path.
Ed Duarte, the FAA's lead civil project engineer, said the government decided to have public hearings and an environmental impact review before installing a new LDA and changing the flight path again out of deference to neighbors.
"We knew there were concerns," Duarte said. "We've heard about the jet noise, the pollution and air traffic coming in over homes. We're going to take what we've learned and incorporate it into our findings, which will be published in August or September."
The public has until June to submit written statements to the FAA on the plan. The new LDA, which consists of eight six-foot-high antennas on a pad 10 feet wide by 50 feet long, could be operational by the end of next year.
Residents at last week's hearings vowed they would fight the project. The neighborhoods where people live should come first, not the airport, many of them argued.
"The welfare of the community should override the efficiency of the airport," Gaster said. "Giving pilots an easier flight to the airport is not reason enough to destroy a neighborhood.
"We're frustrated. We hope that our elected officials at both the federal and local level will step in and help the people living in these areas," Gaster said.
The section of the airport where the new LDA would be installed is actually in the city of Los Angeles, not Santa Monica. Some of those at the hearings, the vast majority of whom were Los Angeles residents, said they may ask the Los Angeles City Council to step in and prohibit Santa Monica's airport from erecting the beacon.
"That's a possibility," said airport director Walsh. "But if the FAA passes this and the city of Los Angeles tried to stop it, we could just move it across the access road into Santa Monica."