Major revamp of LAX stuck at the gate

Times Staff Writer

Except for periodic face-lifts in several of its nine terminals, Los Angeles International Airport hasn’t changed much since shoulder pads, leggings and feathered hair were all the rage.

Today, the airport that ushered the country into the jet age in the 1960s and set the standard for international service in the 1980s is ill-prepared for the new planes that are expected to revolutionize air travel.

Fed up with its cramped ticket lobbies and waiting rooms, gridlocked access roads and outdated airfield, passengers and airlines are increasingly taking their business elsewhere.


“It is the Rip Van Winkle of American airports,” said Steve Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor who has written extensively about Southern California’s infrastructure.

Officials are reaping what they sowed on a former bean field near Santa Monica Bay that became the world’s fifth-busiest airport.

Lack of cohesive political leadership, a history of mistrust between the city’s airport agency and nearby communities, grandiose visions for expanding the facility and an incredibly complex planning process have combined to leave officials without a blueprint to modernize LAX. And time is running out.

“We need to strike a deal,” said Kelly McDowell, mayor of El Segundo, a town on the airport’s southern boundary. “As I’ve said for months and months: We’ve got the right people, in the right place, at the right time.”

An effort to devise a modernization plan -- which has spanned 15 years and cost Los Angeles about $150 million -- is on hold while the new executive director of the city’s airport agency, Gina Marie Lindsey, becomes acquainted with boxes and boxes of documents.

Waiting anxiously in the wings are airline representatives and residents who want to win over Lindsey to their sometimes-conflicting views on how the airport can best be fixed.

Lindsey says Antonio Villaraigosa, the fourth mayor in 20 years to attempt to renovate the airport, has made it clear that “he wants to get modernization at LAX well underway sooner rather than later.” The mayor also has called repeatedly for spreading air traffic among the region’s airports to ease crowding at the seaside facility.

“What we need to be sure we’re taking care of here at LAX is international traffic and the requisite domestic traffic that will feed it,” added Lindsey, who started her job Monday and who is credited with implementing a controversial $4.1-billion plan to renovate Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

“Ontario and Palmdale are ready and able to step into providing facilities for some of the shorter-haul traffic,” she said.

The director said she plans to meet with Villaraigosa this summer to present her vision of what should be done at LAX.

When he took office in 2005, Villaraigosa ordered his then-airport director, Lydia Kennard, to work with LAX’s neighbors to settle lawsuits challenging his predecessor’s modernization plan. Several months later, they reached a compromise that allowed the agency to build agreed-on projects and put more-controversial ones on hold.

Today, construction is taking place at LAX for the first time since the upper-level roadway and the Tom Bradley International Terminal were built in time for the 1984 Olympics.

Contractors have moved the southernmost runway 55 feet and are building a center taxiway between it and a parallel runway as part of a $330-million plan to make the south part of the airport safer. Officials also began a $723.5-million upgrade of the Bradley terminal.

But that is far from enough to ensure that LAX retains its status as the gateway to the Pacific Rim. Carriers, who since 2000 have taken 12% of their seats on lucrative weekly international departures to other airports with gleaming new facilities, say they will not bring new large aircraft -- including the Airbus A380 -- to LAX if there are not enough places for them to park.

In addition, officials deferred terminal upgrades and maintenance projects while lawmakers fought over modernization plans, prompting passengers to rank LAX facilities below average in a recent survey of the nation’s busiest airports.

Unlike other major airports around the country, LAX faces a unique set of challenges that have stymied its ability to keep pace with the ever-changing aviation industry. Over the last decade, as Boeing and Airbus designed and built new aircraft with wider wing spans, requiring more room to maneuver on the ground, three Los Angeles mayors proposed wildly differing modernization plans.

They discussed, variously, expanding LAX to accommodate 103 million passengers annually (it currently handles about 61 million a year), building two runways in Santa Monica Bay, using nearby Hawthorne Municipal Airport for commuter traffic and adding a large terminal on the airport’s western end that would have required a new access road.

Each proposal was met with distrust and anger by surrounding communities, including Westchester, which lost one-third of the land it occupied when the city razed 4,500 homes and displaced 14,000 residents in the 1970s. Visitors to Dockweiler Beach can see remnants of these neighborhoods today in asphalt streets lining the dunes on the airport’s western edge.

“We ran roughshod over the neighboring communities from late 1960s through the 1970s,” said Erie, the UC San Diego professor. “Now it’s payback time. They’re like border vigilantes who want to light up the airport.”

Deep-seated animosity between officials and residents resurfaced this month when the airport agency said it planned to study moving LAX’s northernmost runway 340 feet to improve safety and efficiency. That could expand the airport’s northern boundary and endanger homes and businesses in adjacent Westchester and Playa del Rey.

After Villaraigosa took office, “the community had a brief moment of relief,” said David Coffin, a board member on the Westchester/Playa del Rey Neighborhood Council.

“But 13 or 14 months later they were floored by the ‘new’ proposals,” he added. “There didn’t appear to be any effort to develop the plans with the community as an active partner.”

An attempt by airport officials and residents to hash out new modernization projects -- including an updated road system to alleviate traffic, a terminal with new parking spots for aircraft and a plan to rework the northern part of the airport -- has stalled.

Exacerbating the situation is LAX’ s cramped 3,500-acre layout. Newer airports elsewhere have the luxury of space, and more runways. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, for example, sits on 18,000 acres, and Denver International has 34,000 acres -- 53 square miles.

Officials agree that to get a modernization effort off the ground, planners may have to settle for a slate of individual projects instead of a comprehensive plan that costs a lot and needs a broad consensus.

“We spent a lot of time analyzing a lot of options; we were looking at least at coming up with a plan to resolve the demands on that airport for six lifetimes,” said Jack Driscoll, a consultant who ran the city’s airport agency from 1992 to 1999.

“In today’s environment,” he added, “I think the best you can do in a lot of cases is an incremental move every so often.”