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Running out of runway

January 15, 2006|Carol Mithers and Cathy Larson | Carol Mithers is a journalist. Cathy Larson chairs the Friends of Sunset Park Airport Committee.

IN FEBRUARY 2005, the pilot of a business jet aborted a takeoff from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey but was unable to stop the plane at the end of the runway. It skidded across 1,000 feet of runway, a grass area, a highway and a parking lot, then crashed into a warehouse and caught fire. In May, much the same thing happened at Brownwood Airport in Texas. This time, the careening jet hit a fence and trees, crossed a road and came to rest about 1,300 feet beyond the runway. Evacuating crew and passengers spotted fuel leaking around the craft's left wing.

If a similar accident were to occur at Santa Monica Airport, where about 9,000 jets of comparable size annually take off and land, the out-of-control plane would smash into a densely populated residential neighborhood just 250 feet west of the runway. A jet-fuel fire could wipe out five city blocks with hundreds of homes -- and almost certainly kill some residents. Why won't the Federal Aviation Administration let the city prevent that accident from happening?

The problem at Santa Monica Airport is basic. The facility, built in 1926, was designed to accommodate aircraft of a different time. Its single runway is 5,000 feet long -- shorter than those at Teterboro and Brownwood. There is a steep drop-off at its western end, so houses nearby actually sit below it. Neither end has a buffer zone to give a plane in trouble extra space to stop. For the many years that only small propeller planes flew out of Santa Monica, that flaw wasn't too critical.

But in the last four years, there has been an explosive increase in jets -- big ones -- at the airport. About half the approximately 18,000 yearly jet operations at Santa Monica involve planes with wingspans of 35 feet to 64 feet. The wingspan of the biggest jet using the airport, the Gulfstream IV, is nearly 80 feet. With a full fuel tank, the jet weighs more than 71,000 pounds. These planes take off or land about 1,000 times a year

FAA rules dictate that new airports handling jets this size must include runway safety areas of 1,000 feet. Regulations dating back to the 1970s require commercial airports to have safety zones. The rules haven't been well enforced, but after the Teterboro crash, the Senate passed a bill requiring compliance by 2015.

But existing airports aren't required to add safety areas if they don't currently have them. And the congressional mandate doesn't apply to facilities such as Santa Monica Airport, which are classified as "general aviation airports" rather than commercial.

The city of Santa Monica owns and operates the airport, while the FAA regulates all aspects of air safety. Since 2000, the city has sought the agency's permission to create a runway safety zone. The FAA has refused.

In 2002, the city hired consultants to craft a plan. They reported that lengthening the runway would require relocating, bridging or closing 23rd Street and Bundy Drive, as well as buying and bulldozing 138 houses and one commercial building. Cost: $245 million.

Another possibility was carving safety areas out of the existing runway. The city liked that idea, but the FAA didn't. Why? The airport would be unable to accommodate the biggest jets if the runway were shortened. In 2003, the city's Airport Commission said it would recommend that the City Council adopt an ordinance shortening the runway, but the FAA said that action would be illegal. A safety area, wrote David L. Bennett, the agency's director of airport safety and standards, was considered "a safety enhancement" -- not "necessary." At a meeting with city officials that November, the FAA agreed that the city would propose new recommendations on runway safety-area enhancements, and the agency would evaluate its proposal.

In the autumn of 2004, the city of Santa Monica sent its detailed airport-design standards study to the FAA. Austin Wiswell, chief of the aeronautics division of the California Department of Transportation, also wrote a letter to Woodie Woodward, the FAA's associate administrator for airports, threatening to withhold a state operating permit to Santa Monica Airport because it lacked a runway safety area.

"The issue is simple," he wrote. "Santa Monica Municipal Airport has insufficient runway safety areas and wishes to correct the design standard discrepancy in the interest of public safety. What problem would the Federal Aviation Administration have with this proposal?"

That's our question too. More than a year later, the jets keep landing, the odds of disaster keep going up -- and the FAA still hasn't responded.

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