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Helicopters Flying from Santa Monica Airport to Coachella Festival Spark New Controversy  
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 18, 2017 -- The first helicopter whisking passengers from Santa Monica Airport to the 2017 Coachella festival hadn’t yet taken off when the demands to halt started landing in City Hall in-boxes.

The flurry of emails from upset residents beginning on Friday -- some 90 minutes before the first $695-per-seat one-way trip -- did not stop SMO operations by Blade, the East Coast-based start-up known as “the Uber of Helicopter Service.”

And, despite ongoing questions about whether the flights are even legal, City officials gave no indication of intervening.

Seven copter flights to and from Coachella are scheduled by Blade during the giant festival’s final days next weekend, according to its website.

But the controversy is likely to linger long after the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival ends.

“It sure sounds like someone is pulling the wool over someone’s eyes!” one irate resident wrote in an email sent about 12 hours into the new controversy -- and copied to dozens of recipients on both sides of the long battle over SMO’s future.

“Now if we can just get some straight answers, we might be able to figure out who is being deceived,” he said.

City officials hoped they were closing a door on the decades-long battle to close SMO when they reached an agreement in January with the federal government to shutter the airport by December 31, 2028 ("City, FAA Agree to Close Santa Monica Airport in 2028," January 28, 2017).

But for many residents, the surprise “consent decree” left too many years until closure ("Reaction to Santa Monica Airport Closure Deal Mixed," January 30, 2017).

Nor were they convinced airport traffic would drop in the interim due to shortening SMO’s sole runway, or other efforts to move aircraft-related tenants from the century old facility.

Blade suddenly added new fuel to those suspicions, although helicopter operations account for only three percent of all operations, and have been steeply declining.

It all started with a story in Billboard about Blade re-launching the Santa Monica-to-Coachella helicopter service it debuted during the huge 2016 festival.

Its helicopters would swoosh attendees to Palm Springs within 45 minutes, instead of the usual car trip of more than two hours.

On Friday emails with demands for the copter flights to be halted appeared in the in-boxes of City Council members and the City Manager.

One warned that the flights were due to begin about 12:30 p.m. and that police should be dispatched to stop them. Blade should be “filmed while the violation is in-progress,” the writer wrote.

Several asked how a new service could begin at SMO in the wake of the consent decree. Had Blade been allowed a City permit to operate, even so briefly, out of SMO?

Did it even ask for one? Was a permit necessary at all?

“If it exists, this is a public records request to see the application and approval of Blade's permit,” anti-SMO activist Ben Wang emailed City Manager Rick Cole.

The chain of emails indicates a response within two hours from Cole saying he was trying to reach Blade for more information.

By 3:22 p.m., Cole emailed again (apparently from his iPhone) with more information.

“Evan Licht, President of Blade, returned my call,” his email said. “He assured me that they have no plans for scheduled flights at SMO beyond the Coachella weekend. This is the second year they have offered such flights.

“They are, however, commencing operations in Southern California which will mean brokering traditional charter flights at various airports including ours,” Cole said.

“We will be taking a close look immediately at ensuring their full compliance with all relevant federal and local regulations.”

Whether Cole's response quells concern is open to question.

“Hi Rick,” responded yet another resident a little later in the day.

“Thanks for the quick response on this. However, even a weekend of scheduled commercial flights is flat-out unacceptable -- regardless of whether or not they got away with it last year, or if it's 'just" one weekend,'” wrote Andrew Wilder.

“Precedent is important, and no exceptions should be made... especially not for companies that apparently would rather ask for forgiveness (only if they get caught) rather than permission.”

“Today's 5:00pm flight is listed on their website as "Sold Out" and they're still selling tickets for two flights out of SMO tomorrow (10am and 11am).”

“What action are you taking to stop these unauthorized, illegal flights?”

The email chain (which includes the Lookout News) dissipates and then appears to disappear by the end of the weekend, but leaves the questions of legality and permits unresolved.


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