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Jet-Setters Give Santa Monica the Jitters

Airport neighbors say close celebrity encounters are too frequent these days.

June 22, 2006|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Residents who live near Santa Monica Airport know it's Academy Awards season by the pickup in jet traffic zooming over their houses.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger routinely jets in and out on state business.

Tom Cruise once had to outrun paparazzi who chased him down the tarmac as he tried to board his private jet.

"Everybody from the president of the United States to people who own small, single-engine planes and everybody in between flies out of here," said airport Manager Robert D. Trimborn.

Nestled amid some of the nation's priciest real estate, Santa Monica Airport offers a convenient launch pad for well-heeled Westsiders and corporate bigwigs who crave quick getaways.

Its growing clientele includes executives who favor $20-million Citation X and $35-million Gulfstream IV jets. A strong economy and post-9/11 security concerns have helped boost jet usage at the airport nearly fourfold over the last decade.

But as the single-runway facility gets busier, residents who live around it are becoming increasingly worried about noise, air pollution and safety.

They contend that it's only a matter of time before an out-of-control plane smashes past the end of the 5,000-foot runway and roars into the houses beyond, some a mere 250 feet west.

Turbulence from casino magnate Steve Wynn's jet bowled over and smashed to bits a glass-topped patio table in the backyard of Virginia Ernst, who lives just east of the airport in Los Angeles.

"We were able to identify the plane immediately," she said.

Wynn's attorney dealt with the situation, paying Ernst $3,000.

Ernst says she can look directly into the engines as jets take off. It sometimes seems, she says, that "they're going to land on the roof."

Other residents agree. Yoram Tal, a TV show editor who has lived just west of the airport for about four years, said he is "right in the line of fire" as jets take off and land.

Late one night, Tal, a small-plane pilot and Santa Monica airport commissioner, realized that he "could see not only the wing but the windows above the wing" as a jet took off. "It was no more than 200 feet from my bed," he said. "It was loud, but more than loud it was just really close."

Residents, backed by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and other politicians, say they want buffer zones at both ends of the runway that would help protect the neighborhood if a jet overshot the tarmac. Such a buffer would most likely spell the end for certain faster aircraft (including, possibly, the Gulfstream IV, Cessna Citation X and similar planes).

In the past, the Federal Aviation Administration has resisted, saying the airport could operate safely without them. But in recent months, the FAA has softened that stance and is negotiating with the airport to find a compromise, such as installing engineered material like soft concrete that would slow a runaway aircraft.

In recent years, Santa Monica's airport has seen a dramatic increase in jet takeoffs and landings. One factor is the growth in fractional ownership. More companies and individuals are buying shares of jets, entitling them to a certain number of flying hours. A quarter share, for example, would represent 200 "occupied hours" over the aircraft's lifetime. With a $10-million plane, the share would cost $2.5 million.

"Our business grows every year," said Glenn A. Hinderstein, a vice president of NetJets Inc., a fractional ownership company that operates out of Santa Monica and other airports. It is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the company headed by investment sage Warren E. Buffett, a pioneer in the field.

Passengers can arrive by limousine in ripped jeans and T-shirts, board a jet and be whisked away in a matter of minutes.

In addition to Schwarzenegger, who lives nearby, neighbors over the years have spotted such celebrity jet-setters as John Travolta, Don Johnson, Bill Cosby, Merv Griffin, Robert Redford and Cruise.

The roughly 18,000 yearly jet-aircraft operations (as takeoffs and landings are known) at Santa Monica Airport -- up from fewer than 1,200 in 1983 -- account for about 13% of the airport's traffic. They are about evenly split between jets that are generally slower and smaller and those that are faster and larger.

The airport was designed, decades ago, for slower, smaller aircraft with approach speeds of less than 121 knots (136 mph). Over time, however, the fleet mix has gradually shifted until now the fastest aircraft fly in at speeds as great as 185 mph. They account for about half of the jets using the facility.

For these faster planes, FAA standards call for runway safety areas (similar to runaway-truck ramps on steep roads and highways). In an emergency, a plane can enter the safety area without damaging the aircraft or injuring those on board.

The FAA, however, determined some time ago that the Santa Monica Airport could safely operate without these end-of-runway areas, as long as pilots followed proper procedures.

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