When Palo Alto formally took over the operations of its eponymous airport last year, the goal was to turn the bustling but long-neglected facility into a community treasure.
While that remains the long-term objective, the city is now facing a more urgent task: establishing rules to guide which services would be allowed at the airport and creating requirements for leasing, maintaining and constructing facilities at the busy Baylands hub.
On Monday night, the City Council took a step toward accomplishing this critical task when it adopted what is known as "minimum standards" for the Palo Alto Airport, a policy document that touches on everything from the application process for airport vendors to insurance and staffing requirements for fixed-base operators.
Though minimum standards are a routine fixture in airports throughout the nation, Palo Alto Airport has operated without these rules. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends the development of minimum standards "to promote safety in all airport activities, protect airport users from unlicensed and unauthorized products and services, maintain and enhance the availability of adequate services for all airport users, promote the orderly development of airport land, and ensure efficiency of operations," according to an FAA Advisory Circular devoted to the topic.
The FAA document states that the standards should be "fair and reasonable to all on-airport aeronautical service providers and relevant to the aeronautical activity to which it is applied."
In recent months, the city's consulting firm Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell considered the minimum standards at other similar airports and proposed a set for Palo Alto to adopt. In a memo to the city, the firm cited recent interest from private companies as a reason to move ahead with the effort.
"Since the transfer of the airport, the city has received several inquiries about new or expanded aeronautical activities at the airport, and the absence of minimum standards places the city in the legally awkward position of not being able to answer inquiries about the city's requirements with definitive information," the memo states. "It is critically important that the city be able to provide not only authoritative answers to such inquiries but also that its responses be consistent, so that the city meets its federal obligation to operate the airport in a fair and reasonable manner, not unjustly discriminate among providers of aeronautical services and not improperly prohibit access to the Airport for such activities.
"The existence of minimum standards will alleviate this problem."
The 32-page document of standards that Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell proposed for Palo Alto would be stop-gap measure that will tide the airport over until the city and the community adopt standards more in keeping with local wants and needs. The largely technical document includes policies on things like leasing of airport land, flight reservation, staffing levels for fixed-base operators, qualifications for air-taxi companies and insurance minimums for different types of airport users.
The council voted unanimously to adopt the document. It also directed staff to work with community stakeholders to come up with permanent minimum standards for the airport, an effort that will begin in 2016.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who served as a Santa Clara County supervisor at a time when the county and the city were involved in the airport transfer, said she was surprised that the county hadn't already adopted minimum standards for Palo Alto Airport. She also noted that airports have recently become a more urgent topic, with recent shifts in federal policy about flight paths and altitudes prompting a flurry of citizen complaints about growing airport noise.
"I think airports ... had become far more of a pressing issue now, especially now that we have the new NextGen in place that is so distressing," Kniss said, referring to FAA's recently launched and increasingly controversial program to standardize travel lanes for airplanes.
Councilman Eric Filseth added his voice of support to adopting the minimum standards.
"I'm surprised the county hadn't done it already," Filseth said. "It's high time we did it."
Not everyone was as excited. Several concerned residents, along with members of the local group Sky Posse, which has been at the forefront of the grassroots effort to reduce airplane noise, urged the council not to rush ahead with adopting standards that have not been vetted by the community.
Resident Amy Christel said she was concerned that the hastily adopted minimum standards would enable the city to enter into a long-term arrangement with a service provider that would not be in the best interests of the community.
"Why are we having this discussion now, after the airport has been in our hands for a year without such minimum standards?" Christel asked.
She was one of several residents who urged the council to hold off on adopting the minimum standards until there has been more engagement with, and feedback from, the broader community. City Attorney Molly Stump noted, however, that even without minimum standards, the airport can already move ahead with a leasing or permitting process.
"It would go forward without those uniform protective standards in place," Stump said. "We think it's advantageous to all to put the standards in place on an interim basis, subject to the community process that will take place next year."