The city of Los Angeles announced Tuesday that three major airlines and a commuter carrier will lose their rights to use Los Angeles International Airport early next month--and that dozens of other air carriers will follow--unless they pay disputed landing fees.
The city’s hardball negotiating tactic--called “extortion” by an airline spokesman--escalates a bitter feud between the Administration of Mayor Richard Riordan, which is seeking to increase its grip on airport operations, and the airlines, which have filed a federal lawsuit contesting a tripling of the landing fees at LAX.
The first group of airlines that could lose their rights to do business Oct. 4 at the nation’s third-largest airport are America West, Southwest, USAir and USAir Express, all of which use Terminal 1. City officials said they will fax a letter to those airlines today giving them two weeks to pay up.
United Airlines and United Express, which use Terminal 7, will be the next carriers to receive two weeks to pay their fees. Officials said they will proceed terminal by terminal on a weekly basis warning airlines that have not paid of their intention to cut off service.
The Riordan-appointed Board of Airport Commissioners said it was forced to take the drastic action when 76 of the 100 airlines serving the airport decided to submit the previous rate of 51 cents per 1,000 pounds of landed weight instead of the new rate of $1.56 that took effect July 1.
The old rate had been in effect for 40 years, and the airlines are fighting in federal court to preserve it. They maintain that the city is artificially raising the fees as part of its eventual effort to siphon off airport revenues to pay for more police officers.
Such a diversion of airport money is not currently permitted under federal law, and airport officials contend that Riordan’s desire to change that law has nothing to do with the dispute.
“It is the airlines who have brought this on,” said Ted Stein, president of the Airport Commission and a special adviser to Riordan. “They are the ones who have refused to pay the lawful rate, and they are the ones who are going to inconvenience the public.”
City officials said they are taking this drastic action because they are not legally able to seek a court injunction forcing the airlines to pay. But if the airlines challenge the city’s ban on airport use in court, as is expected, the matter might be settled by a judge before any service is cut off, airport officials said.
Before the ban is imposed, city officials said they will issue a travel advisory to the public and will work to reduce inconveniences to travelers. They said they hope the matter will be resolved without the need for any interruption of service.
The banned airlines would be permitted to land if they approach the airport, but their employees would not be granted access to the plane to refuel, make safety checks or unload baggage.
Stein compared the action to what a utility does when a resident does not pay a light bill.
“If American Airlines doesn’t pay for its gas, it doesn’t fly,” Stein said. “Why should either of those airlines or any others who have not paid . . . be able to operate without paying those charges?”
But airline officials called the decision a misguided step.
“The city is accumulating quite a rap sheet on its airport operations,” said Chris Chiames, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., the airlines’ trade group. “First they made plans for an illegal scheme to divert revenue, then they set landing fees at an unjustified rate, which prompted the airlines to file suit. Now they are going for extortion charges. This is simply a business dispute between the city and the airlines that the Riordan Administration is turning into an economic Armageddon.”