The Hidden Airport Crisis in SoCal: How One Airport Closure Is Creating Major Problems

For the last several years, a crisis has been quietly brewing in airports across Southern California, and to an extent, the rest of California: the closure of airports and reduction of services. Given how hard it is to open an airport, the loss of any airport feels especially permanent, more so in Southern California than anywhere else.

Complaints of jet traffic, noise pollution, and other factors at airports in Van Nuys, Burbank, Hawthorne and others have continued to grow due to multiple factors, but two big ones stand out: the continued closure of Santa Monica airport and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let’s start at Santa Monica. Originally known as Clover Field, the airport quickly grew when the Douglas Airplane Company moved in in the 1920’s, and even more during WWII. The airport became essential for private aircraft post-war and became known as the airport for celebrities who liked to fly. People like Harrison Ford still fly out of, and occasionally crash, near there. But as Santa Monica grew, noise complaints went up. Residents suddenly surprised that aircraft were noisy near their homes pressured the city to do something about it, and in the 2010’s, the city reached an agreement with the FAA to close the airport by 2028. As a final act of spite, the city shortened the runway enough to divert all jet air traffic away in 2017.

Santa Monica got rid of their problem at the expense of the rest of the region though. Air traffic, jet noise complaints, pollution, lowered property values, and other factors began spiking at nearby airports almost immediately, with Burbank, Hawthorne, and Van Nuys getting the brunt of it. Airplanes needed somewhere to go, especially private planes that couldn’t afford fees at LAX and other larger airports. Soon residents began fighting the growing traffic in those cities. However those planes needed somewhere to go. Airports were still needed to land private aircraft ranging from trainers used to help train pilots to address the growing pilot shortage to private jets landing there to help keep larger airports more free for commercial traffic. Removing an airport doesn’t remove those planes.

FAA and other airport officials even said that all of these issues stemmed directly from Santa Monica’s decision to close down the airport.

Air traffic, noise issues multiply during Santa Monica Airport closure process

Compounding the plane traffic diversion was the COVID-19 pandemic. While commercial traffic trailed off for years, charter air traffic went up by leaps and bounds. And with Santa Monica now no longer an option because they chopped up part of the runway, all these planes had to go to the few other airport options in and around LA, exacerbating problems in the region. The problem has persisted for several years, with large events, such as the Super Bowl, showing plane traffic jams that may not have happened if Santa Monica had been allowed to stay open.

“This is a difficult issue,” said an air traffic controller who asked to remain anonymous Wednesday. “Residents, you know, are fed up with the noise and pollution and planes landing past the scheduled quiet times. They were in Santa Monica ten years ago. But Santa Monica did the most selfish thing possible and decided to close it and screw over everyone else. Burbank residents especially have been furious about the increased traffic. But we’re not building any airports to replace Santa Monica, nor are we expanding others. Planes formerly there need to spread out to surrounding airports up to Santa Barbara, south to Orange County and out East to the Inland Empire. But people also need to be close to planes.”

“It’s idiotic to close Santa Monica. Again, I feel for the residents who have to face this. It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t have bought a home near an airport if you didn’t want the noise. But it’s just a matter of fact that the planes needed to go somewhere. This is a crisis that no one really wants to talk about because no one really thinks about it unless it is directly affecting them, but we are all starting to feel it. And with gas now going up, aviation gas always being a dollar or two more than regular gas, pilots are being selective where they go. And they all really wish that Santa Monica residents didn’t do this. They got what they wanted but made life hell for everyone else.”

“Best case scenario would be a last minute saving of the airport and bringing back the jets, but that would be so hard to do at this point. I can only imagine what residents there would do if they managed to reverse the closure. But it sure would reverse all these issues at virtually all airports here. In time for the Olympics too, because that will be an air nightmare here in six years time.”

While commercial air traffic is now normalizing again, it is yet to be seen if this leads to any relief to the rest of LA’s airport traffic and noise problems.

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