Sky's the Limit as Panel Devises Friendlier LAX

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine visiting Los Angeles International Airport voluntarily. Taking a ride to good ol' congested, can't-park-in-the-white-zone LAX--just for fun.

Convinced that the world's third busiest airport can be more than just a dreary travel way station, Mayor Richard Riordan has asked a committee that includes some of the city's top architects and designers to imagine a more inviting municipal gateway.

The project is part of a newfound civic focus on LAX, where higher landing fees for airlines have sparked controversy and where a $197-million operating budget is being eyed as the cash cow to put more police on city streets.

At the new LAX, Riordan adviser Janis Berman has proposed, terminals will offer Starbucks-style coffee and California health foods. Touch-screen computers will help new arrivals find virtually any destination in the city. The public address system will feature Frank Sinatra crooning "Come Fly With Me." And valets will be stationed curbside to park latecomers' cars.

Berman, Riordan's assistant for government relations, has come up with these and more than two dozen other ideas to make the airport more user-friendly.

Riordan has asked that the first improvements be made in time for next summer's World Cup soccer finals, to be held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and expected to draw huge crowds to the Los Angeles area. By then, airport administrators said, they plan to have brightened the ground-level passenger arrival area with new lights and a paint job, spruced up landscaping along airport roadways, and erected banners greeting athletes and fans from around the world.

In the longer run, airport managers will be fed a diet of new ideas by Berman and a committee that includes Frank Gehry, the city's signature architect and the designer of Downtown's Disney Concert Hall.

Berman got the brainstorming started in a breezily written four-page memo. A Democratic Party activist and the wife of U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), she approached her task as a consumer advocate--leaving no element of the LAX aesthetic safe from scrutiny.

Berman proposes, for example, eliminating the unofficial LAX leitmotif , that relentless recording that intones: "The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only! No parking!"

She also suggests opening a Spago-esque eatery to occupy the landmark "Theme Building" and calls for a sort of charm school for traffic police.

"For some reason, they think people who are dropping off friends and luggage at the curb are criminals instead of customers," her memo complains.

She also calls for better and more varied shops, conversion to electric buses to reduce fumes and smog, installation of more automated teller machines and a food overhaul. ("Cut out the fried stuff," the memo urges.)

Berman conceded that a few officials have rolled their eyes derisively at some of her proposals, but she insisted that most can be enacted without much cost.

"There are some very interesting ideas," airport general manager Jack Driscoll said. "We will go down the list and see how we do the things that have merit."

The cost of improvements and a plan for putting them in place has not been drafted. But airport officials noted that some changes are under way.

The Delta terminal has one Starbucks coffee outlet that is doing land-office business, Driscoll said. Bureaucrats are surveying the nation's airports to help decide whether LAX should continue with its giant food concessionaire, Host-Marriott Inc., or negotiate independently with restaurants and food providers. Fifteen buses that burn cleaner liquid natural gas are on order. And computer outlets with destination instructions are being installed at information kiosks.

Other proposals, such as valet parking, are more complicated, Driscoll said. The Department of Airports would have to conduct a study to make sure such an enterprise would be profitable and then find an area to park the cars, he said.

And Driscoll was not ready to endorse Berman's proposal of hiring a communications firm that has worked with gang youths in the San Fernando Valley to boost the morale and demeanor of the airport's traffic police.

"I don't know that the police aren't friendly," he said. "It depends on your experience. But any public employee should try to have a more customer service orientation."

The concept of improving airport operations comes as the city is seeking federal legislation that would allow it to spend revenue from the airport for non-airport related purposes.

"This will be a profit-maker and stimulate business and tourism," Berman said.

The airline industry has vehemently opposed the diversion of funds to the city's general treasury, saying that airport upkeep would suffer and that the already beleaguered airline industry would suffer further losses.

But that has not slowed the fanciful thinking in Los Angeles.

Gehry has met several times with a group of architects to discuss the airport's place in the city's consciousness. And designers are busily at work drafting high concepts for LAX in the more distant future.

Gehry likes to joke with Riordan, a fellow hockey enthusiast, about the ice rink they will erect at the airport. The architect said he was gratified just to be consulted on the project and happily offered his advice free of charge.

"A lot of people would like the airport to happen," Gehry said, "and Riordan seems to want it to happen, so we will throw a lot of stuff out there over the next few months and see what happens."

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