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Federal Appeals Court Shoots Down Santa Monica Aircraft Ban

January 27, 2011 — Late last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia refused to review the City of Santa Monica, California’s appeal of a 2009 FAA decision that struck down the city’s ordinance banning Category C and D jets from Santa Monica Airport (SMO). The city council had passed the jet ban in March 2008 citing safety reasons because, it contended, the airport lacks runway safety areas to act as buffer zones from nearby homes in the event an aircraft would overrun the runway. Category C includes aircraft with an approach speed of 121-141 knots; Category D, 141-166 kts.

But since the city received $10.2 million in federal grant funds under the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program between 1985 and 2003, the airport was contractually obligated to be available according to the grant agreement “for public use on fair and reasonable terms” and could not discriminate against all types, kinds, and classes of aeronautical uses. The only exception would be for safety reasons, but the court found that banning Category C and D jets was not necessary for the safe operation of the airport.

Randall Fiertz, FAA director of airport compliance and field operations, said the process resulting in the appeals court decision “reaffirms the importance of FAA grant assurances in protecting access for general aviation and publicly funded airports. Airports or local municipalities cannot make decisions that restrict access.”

The city’s claim that the FAA acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when denying the city ordinance was denied. Rather, the court called the FAA’s conclusion “logically derived from the findings supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record.”

Lionel Sobel, professor at Southwestern Law School, told the Santa Monica Mirror, “The FAA won. Santa Monica lost. The decision was based on contract obligations the city assumed when it accepted Airport Improvement Program grant money from the federal government. It was not based on constitutional ‘preemption’ grounds.”

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