Dark Days for LAX Light Show

Times Staff Writer

When they were unveiled five years ago in time for the Democratic National Convention, the 30 towering glass-and-steel pylons decorating the entrance to Los Angeles International Airport were proclaimed the city's "Electronic Stonehenge."

Today, they're as gray and unchanging as the original -- and most nonelectric -- Stonehenge thousands of miles away.

Complex stage lighting inside the cylinders was designed to produce 300 vibrant color variations, treating passengers and local businesses to ever-changing light shows featuring pinks, blues, oranges and yellows.

For a while, the $15-million system worked, earning the pylons starring shots on local television news shows and enticing hotel patrons to venture out for a stroll along Century Boulevard.

"It's an icon for this area, something people really enjoy seeing," said Laurie Hughes, executive director of Gateway to L.A., a business improvement district that represents 35 area hotels and businesses.

But two years ago the high-maintenance system started to falter, leaving the glass towers splotchy. Sometimes they didn't change color. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn't work at all.

Finally, the airport agency Los Angeles World Airports turned most of them off. On Tuesday night, the entire system went dark.

"Anyone who has visited LAX after sundown recently has no doubt noticed that the pylon lights along Century Boulevard and at the airport entrance do not convey the type of positive image we want," said Lydia Kennard, the agency's executive director, at a recent Airport Commission meeting. "We are acutely aware of the problem."

The temperamental lights weren't only an embarrassment to airport officials, they also bothered hoteliers and businesses in the neighborhood.

"The regulars used to mention it all the time," said Grant Coonley, general manager of the Hilton Hotel on Century Boulevard. "Now we have the Europeans wondering why the pylons aren't going."

For the next few months, the pylons will remain off so the agency can complete a $1.8-million makeover. Fifteen pylons that stand 25 to 60 feet tall in the median along Century Boulevard and 15 100-foot-high towers that form a ring at the airport's entrance will be overhauled.

The fix will include small LED lights that will make electricians' lives easier, save $960,000 in annual maintenance and cut yearly energy costs by 75% -- adding up to a $7.5-million savings over their 10-year life cycle, officials said. The $1,000 LED lights have no moving parts, and all technicians will need to do is replace them when they burn out.

The current pylon lighting system features myriad 18-by-18-inch stage lights that are difficult to install and service. To fix one, electricians have to hang upside down from a harness attached to a nearby railing to pull out the fixture's insides.

"It was state-of-the-art technology five years ago," said Charlie Sipple, construction and maintenance manager for the airport agency.

"But it's always been fix one, and then another goes out."

Sipple's technicians often didn't know whether the lights themselves or the computer system that runs the lighting sequence was causing the problem. The pylons' unusual setup often made it difficult to get replacement parts, Sipple said.

A test run on pylon No. 6, located among the Canary Island and Mexican fan palm trees on the median along Century Boulevard across from the Hilton Hotel, impressed hoteliers and businesses. Red, peach and magenta took turns illuminating the pylon recently as the sun went down at the airport's western edge.

The new system features software that will allow technicians to create 16 million color combinations by manipulating red, blue and green colors in each LED light. Officials will be able to save lighting programs and use them again -- allowing red, white and blue variations to automatically take effect on the Fourth of July, for example.

The new system's versatility promises to raise some interesting questions for airport officials. Should they program the lights to be Dodger blue on opening day? Would nearby high school sports teams expect similar treatment? What about companies coming into town to attend a conference?

"If we do it for USC, do we have to do it for UCLA?" Sipple asked, adding that officials are drafting a policy.

"I was concerned that if we did use USC colors, we would have UCLA people out here spray-painting pylons."

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