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Officials grounded for A380 flight

Times Staff Writer

Hand-picked business leaders, journalists and residents will be among those experiencing what it’s like to ride on the world’s largest passenger jet during a demonstration flight today out of Los Angeles International Airport.

Airbus had hoped to include on the flight’s manifest L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles City Council and elected officials from airport neighbors El Segundo and Inglewood, as a run-up to the first A380 commercial flight at LAX next fall and to persuade influential travel agents the airport is ready to handle the behemoth.

The company said it also had promised the mayor earlier this year, after the A380’s first LAX visit, that it would bring a second craft with a finished interior. The stripped-down test jet that visited LAX in March had miles of exposed wiring and several water tanks used to adjust the plane’s center of gravity.

But Villaraigosa and council members had to turn down what well could be this week’s hottest ticket in town because of an obscure state law that bars public officials from accepting free transportation.

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Officials who violate the ban could be required to forfeit their offices.

Villaraigosa, who never received a formal invitation to ride the jet, was advised by his ethics team and the city attorney’s office not to take the demonstration flight, said Darryl Ryan, a spokesman for the mayor.

“Our primary responsibility is to make sure we don’t violate any state laws,” he said.

Word of the provision, in place since the state’s founding and originally designed to prevent railroad companies from handing out free tickets to curry favor with legislators, surprised aviation officials, who said they hadn’t encountered similar rules on A380 test flights around the world.

The provision has been applied to deny access to free railroad trips in the early 1900s and plane rides in the 1980s, and the state attorney general’s office hasn’t hesitated to enforce it, legal experts said.

“An official would not be well-advised to make the trip,” said Kareem Crayton, an assistant professor of law and political science at USC’s Gould School of Law. “Doing so might subject him to a lawsuit.”

With local officials unable to go, Airbus and Qantas Airways extended invitations to 150 business leaders, suppliers and residents, several of whom are outspoken opponents of decades-old efforts to modernize LAX.

Airbus executives have invited community members to take demonstration flights in other cities to build confidence in the A380, which they say is quieter and has lower emissions than other big aircraft.

“People that are critical of airports need to know the new technologies that are available,” said Allan McArtor, Airbus’ North America chairman. “L.A. has to have an airport worthy and attractive enough for airlines to bring this kind of sophisticated airplane here.”

Airbus, Qantas and Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX, plan to use the 90-minute demonstration flight to prove that the agency’s efforts to prepare the aging facility for the massive jet are paying off.

“I’m very confident that Los Angeles will be ready when it’s required next year,” said Wally Mariani, a senior executive vice president at Qantas, which plans to inaugurate the commercial A380 flights at LAX. The A380 that is visiting this week belongs to Airbus but is being flown by Qantas pilots to Sydney on Friday for additional testing.

The A380, an eight-story-high aircraft with a double-decked cabin and a wingspan nearly the length of a football field, is designed to carry at least 140 more passengers than a Boeing 747, currently the largest passenger jet in service.

Airport officials plan to spend $121 million on upgrades at LAX for the A380, including two parking spots at Tom Bradley International Terminal that have double-decked bridges designed to help efficiently load and unload the aircraft.

Airbus and many of the international carriers that have bought the plane have repeatedly criticized LAX for moving too slowly to improve its facility. LAX is expected to handle more daily A380 flights than any other North American airport by 2012. LAX fell behind competitors, including San Francisco International Airport, which has a new international terminal, in preparing for the giant craft.

Airlines still are worried, however, that LAX will not be able to accommodate multiple A380 operations without using remote gates near the airport’s sand dunes that require them to bus passengers to terminals.

“I have some concerns about what happens in 2011 when a number of carriers want to bring the plane to Los Angeles,” Mariani said. “We won’t use those remote gates.”

City officials said they wanted to expedite plans to build a terminal behind the Bradley terminal with parking spots for the A380 and other large aircraft. Adding spaces for these jets on the back of the Bradley building is also an option, they said.

“The airline industry is kind of still not convinced that this is what we’re going to do, which is of a big concern to me,” said City Councilwoman Janice Hahn. “We’ve got to put the shovels to the ground. We’ve got to make these decisions that sends the message loud and clear we want to do business.”

jennifer.oldham@latimes.com


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