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LAX Considers Takeoff Ban in Fee Dispute

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles International Airport officials, in an escalating feud with the airline industry, are considering a plan to effectively prohibit takeoffs by airlines that refuse to pay increased landing fees.

With the expected support of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, the city Airport Commission today will consider issuing a warning to 76 airlines--including all the major carriers--that if they do not pay the new charges, their operating privileges will be terminated at the nation’s third-busiest air transportation hub. Only 24 of the 100 airlines operating out of the airport have paid the fees since they were increased threefold in July.

The tactic, a hardball negotiating gambit that could wreak havoc on travelers and the business community, is designed to put economic pressure on the airlines to pay up.

“We will not stop planes from landing, and people will be allowed to get off their aircraft,” said an airport official. “We haven’t figured out yet if they will get their luggage.”

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Although the increased landing fees are earmarked strictly for airport operations, Riordan campaigned on a pledge to fatten the airport treasury and siphon off funds to pay for more police. The airlines have gone to court, arguing that the fee increase is excessive. City officials have countered that the new rates are still lower than those levied at other major airports.

Theodore Stein, president of the Airport Commission, declined Monday to discuss the airport’s plans but confirmed that the commission will meet in closed session to consider its options in the landing fee dispute.

Sources said the airport would use specially coded card keys to deny runway access to maintenance crews, preventing refueling of airlines. A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration said the agency could not comment on whether the airport would be acting within its authority until it sees what action the commission takes.

“The traveling public at some point may be somewhat inconvenienced,” said Jack Driscoll, director of the city Department of Airports. “But there is no reason for them to be concerned about safety.

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“We simply want to get the money we need to run the airport,” Driscoll said.

No date has been set for the policy to go into effect. The commission is considering sending a letter initially to just a few of the airlines. The letter would warn that if they do not pay the increased fees in 10 days, “their operating privileges at LAX will be terminated,” an airport official said.

James E. Landry, president of the Air Transport Assn., the trade group that represents major air carriers, assailed LAX officials for their apparent willingness “to take the unprecedented step of disrupting air commerce . . . and inconveniencing passengers and shippers just to prove they are ‘in control.’ ”

“The rest of the Los Angeles business community has got to be worried about the adverse economic impact of an airport lock-out,” Landry said.

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An American Airlines spokesman said it is unfair for the airport to insist on payment while the higher fees are being challenged in court. “We’re not paying while the matter is before the court,” said spokesman Tim Smith. “We’re well within our rights.”

Stein, the Airport Commission president, responded, “We have offered in writing to allow the airlines to pay the disputed portion of the fees under protest without waiving their legal rights. They have rejected our proposal, (and are) obviously unwilling to give up the sweetheart deal they have enjoyed for the past 40 years.”

Another airport official, speaking anonymously, acknowledged that the city’s move could anger the public. But the official said: “What other choice do we have? They are trying to bully us around. They’re refusing to pay the fees we need to run our airport.”

The financial dispute between the city-owned airport and the airlines has become something of an international incident. The British government Monday protested the higher fees to the U.S. State Department, contending that they violate international agreements.

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The airlines have filed suit seeking to block the tripling of landing fees at the airport, contending that the steep increase violates federal laws and aviation agreements that prohibit airport operators from charging fees beyond those needed to operate airports.

The city hopes to garner $74 million a year from the fees--a $50 million increase.

The new fees--increased from 51 cents to $1.56 per 1,000 pounds of weight--took effect July 1 after being approved by the City Council. That means the operator of a Boeing 747 that previously paid about $300 to land at the airport must now pay more than $900.

Neither side in the dispute has estimated how much that would add to the average plane ticket.

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