Predictably, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has weighed in strongly in opposition to the City of Santa Monica’s (“City”) plan to close the Santa Monica Airport (“Airport”) within the next two years. The City, owner and operator of the Airport, plans to begin the process of closure, including cancellation and/or modification of leases held by various aeronautical service providers, such as providers of fuel, maintenance and hangar storage. Those Airport incumbents are already paying rent on a month-to-month basis, subject to summary eviction.
The permanent closure or “deactivation” of an underutilized public use airport has gained increasing traction among revenue starved airport sponsors, as well as disparate responses from affected parties. Operators seek to save the drain on diminishing budgets; residential communities surrounding the airport hope for relief from the airport’s impacts; and the pilot community sees its access to the dwindling number of general aviation facilities shrinking further. Whatever the rationale, the operator seeking to close and reuse an airport for non-aviation purposes, that has at any time accepted funds from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), faces substantial regulatory hurdles and complex procedural requirements.
Your local airport is becoming a drain on the local economy. Sure, it provides a few jobs, adds a certain cachet to the area and provides a hobby for the few people who can afford to purchase and maintain aircraft. But the annual expense of keeping the airport running – and running safely – is becoming more and more like a lead weight on your budget. “Let’s just close the thing,” you say. But wait, remember all that money you accepted from the FAA as part of the AIP grant program to lengthen the runway, pay for new taxiways, and purchase property? The FAA remembers. And before you can close the airport, there are many hurdles to clear set by the FAA to discourage the closure of airports.
1. Take A Look At The Grant Assurances
First, take a look at the documents in your possession – the grant agreements you received from the FAA and signed as a condition of receiving the grants. As you are no doubt aware, under various Federal grant programs, you have agreed to assume certain statutorily defined obligations pertaining to the operation, use and maintenance of the Airport [49 U.S.C. § 47107(a)], that are described and implemented in FAA Order 5190.6B and memorialized in the application for Federal assistance as Grant Assurances, which become a part of the grant offer and bind the grant recipient contractually upon acceptance. 49 U.S.C. § 47107(a); FAA Order 5190.6B, “Guide To Sponsor Obligations” pp. 2-13 to 2-18.