Airline Cargo Facility Lease Stirs Battle at City Hall


United Airlines, the No. 1 passenger carrier at Los Angeles International Airport, will face one of its toughest local fights today as it attempts to persuade the City Council to approve a lease for a new $30-million cargo facility.

United’s proposed cargo building has touched off a behind-the-scenes battle in and around City Hall, bitterly dividing labor and adding fuel to the arguments of airport expansion critics.

Perhaps it is just poor timing, but the airline is seeking the lease for the building--without a full environmental review of its impact--at the same time that a powerful union hoping to represent security workers and others in United terminals is fighting to organize employees there. In addition, the airline’s effort comes amid a growing political and legal fight over airport expansion, including a recent lawsuit in which El Segundo claims that the airport is expanding in illegal, piecemeal fashion.


“We are unfortunately caught up in a lot of red herring issues . . . that distract attention from the core issue,” said Amos Kazzaz, United Airlines’ vice president for property and facilities. “I thought Chicago politics was difficult. Los Angeles brings a whole new chapter and definition to it.”

To hear United tell it, a new cargo facility is sorely needed because the existing building is outdated and inefficient. Cargo now is left out on the tarmac under a tent, leading to damage and theft, and costing the airline more than $1 million a year, the carrier says. Job-related injuries are up as a result of the conditions there, United adds. Second only to Federal Express in cargo, United handles 38% of the mail delivered in Los Angeles, as well as volumes of flowers and perishables, among many other commodities.

United, along with the unions and others, has been working hard to win permission to build its proposed cargo facility. “I’ve been bombarded,” said Councilman Mike Feuer, who could have been speaking for all his colleagues Thursday.

Everyone is trying to count to eight, the number of votes needed for United to win its lease. But even late Thursday afternoon, it was anyone’s guess whether United or the unions or the anti-expansionists would muster the support needed.

The split in Los Angeles’ influential labor movement is troubling to many involved, including lawmakers typically sympathetic to union desires. The county Federation of Labor convened a task force to hear the differing views in its ranks, then decided to remain neutral on the subject.

On one side is the local branch of the Service Employees International Union, which has been attempting to pressure United to force its subcontractor at the airport to recognize the union’s right to represent security workers, baggage handlers and others. The union is opposing United’s cargo lease, and instead argues that it should receive a full environmental review. Others in labor and elsewhere say, however, that the union would have supported the lease--or at least not openly opposed it--had the union been successful in its lengthy organizing effort.


Service Employees International is countered within labor by the machinists and aerospace workers union, which represents employees at United’s cargo facility. That union supports the airline and is angry that Service Employees International has so forcefully worked against it.

“They’re trying to brand this with a double E: environment and expansion,” said Steve Cook, assistant general chairman of the machinists and aerospace workers union. “I wish it were that easy. This is really a labor dispute to them.”

In addition, there is the continuing issue of community opposition to airport expansion.

City officials and residents in surrounding areas believe that United is attempting to dramatically increase its cargo capabilities--and thus, expand the airport--without regard to community concerns about the potential traffic, noise and air pollution impacts.

“This is absolutely a blatant expansion of the airport,” said El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon, who said he intends to show up at City Hall today with busloads of protesters. “Modernization is now the buzzword for expansion.”

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, a longtime critic of airport expansion, said she firmly believes that the new facility needs a full environmental impact report. The committee she chairs is proposing that the council send the matter back to the Airport Commission, which approved the lease unanimously in September, and order a full review.

Galanter says she believes United opposes that review because it is faster and cheaper to offer to lessen the impact of the proposed facility at Century and Airport boulevards than to undertake the lengthy environmental process.


“We’ve heard the proponents say we want to keep the cargo safe and dry in our terrible rainstorms here and yes, by the way, we’re expanding the capacity,” she said. “They should have done it [a full review] in the first place.”

But John Agoglia, president of the Airport Commission and a strong supporter along with Mayor Richard Riordan of expanding the airport, said: “I don’t consider this an expansion. The cargo is there; it’s covered by a tent. We’d just like a permanent facility for it.”