FAA Should Use Its ‘Nuclear Option’ To Save America’s Airports

 - January 26, 2010, 3:31 AM

Right now, two towns on opposite sides of the U.S. are fighting to restrict business jet access at their local airports. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, Venice Airport is under siege; on the West Coast, it’s Santa Monica (Calif.) Airport that’s on the defensive. Although the two towns are going about their efforts differently, each has its airport in its sights and has already started shooting.

The town of Venice has steadfastly refused to allow the FBO on the field–Venice Jet Center–to build more hangars, fearing these would attract more jet traffic. And despite the FAA repeatedly decreeing that Venice allow the hangars, the city has rebuffed the FAA’s authority and spent armloads of taxpayer money in lawyer fees to fight the agency’s ruling.

But that’s not the only action the town has taken against the airport. The Venice City Council is trying to get the field–which was built in the 1940s as a U.S. Army Air Corps base–downgraded from a class C to a class B facility. This is another end-run to curtail jet traffic. The city has even taken the extra effort of rejecting aircraft traffic counts from a couple years ago for a more recent count–conducted at the depth of the recession and costing $350,000 of public money. Not surprisingly, this latter count showed less traffic, thus bolstering the city’s plan to shorten the runway so it doesn’t have to fix the safety zones for the existing runways.

Just three years ago, however, Venice Airport received $3.6 million in Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding to improve Runway 04/22, so the FAA earlier this month said it would not allow the airport to be downgraded. In the words of Bart Vernice, the assistant manager at the FAA’s Orlando FSDO, “The city is obligated, based on the [FAA] grant assurances, to maintain the utility of the airport.”

Three thousand miles west of Venice, Santa Monica has long sought to ban category C and D aircraft from operating at Santa Monica Airport. The tactic is different than that of Venice, but goal is the same: reduce jet traffic and eliminate the need to build proper runway safety zones for the existing runways.

Despite Santa Monica’s best efforts, the FAA and the courts have repeatedly prevented this ban from happening, also citing the grant assurances made between Santa Monica and the FAA. Still, the city continues to spend taxpayer money to fight the FAA, this time on an appeal of a ruling made in May last year. The fight drags on.

While there are plenty of other airports between Venice and Santa Monica that are under assault by various localities, the egregious actions of these two cities single them out from the rest. Both promised the FAA to maintain access to their respective airports when they accepted AIP funding. Both apparently have reneged on this pledge and are seeking to arbitrarily restrict use of their airport by whatever means they believe will stick. And both are relentless in their pursuit to impose their proposed changes, regardless the cost to local taxpayers. Most alarming, both Venice and Santa Monica are outright thumbing their noses at the FAA’s authority. If the FAA doesn’t take a hard-line stance against either or both, then other towns could be encouraged to follow their lead and make a real mess out of the nation’s airport system.

This is why one of these airports needs to be made an example of, and I don’t mean the wrist-slapping that the FAA is famous for. Instead, the agency should use its “nuclear option”–take back control of either Venice or Santa Monica Airport, or both, as allowed under the grant assurances–to show that it really means business and will take serious action to protect airports from assaults by city governments.