Westchester residents keep a wary eye on L.A. airport

Times Staff Writer

If you’ve been to Los Angeles International Airport lately, you may have noticed that it’s a little ragged around the edges. It’s as if charm has taken a holiday.

In that sense, the airport is a perfect reflection of the city it serves. Putting it another way, why raise visitors’ expectations?

In 2001 and 2002, then-Mayor James K. Hahn offered a plan to modernize the airport and add facilities. The proposal was viewed by the communities near the airport as an effort to expand LAX, and a lawsuit was filed to stop it. The suit was settled last year by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who, when he was a city councilman, had come out against the Hahn plan and later promised not to expand the airport. Problem is, not every issue was resolved by the settlement, one of the foremost being safety issues involving the north runways.


What exactly is the problem?

Airplanes are getting closer to one another on runways and taxiways than FAA rules allow. In aviationspeak, this is known as a runway incursion. In plain English, it’s known as “Oh, *&$#!” There have been eight incursions since Oct. 1, 2006, with four on the north runways. Two have occurred in the last three weeks.

How does the north airfield work?

As the accompanying photo shows, there are two runways on the north side of the airport. The outermost runway (known as 24 Right) is mostly for landings, the one closer to the terminals (24 Left) mostly for takeoffs.

After planes land on 24 Right, they turn left onto one of several taxiways. The planes then must immediately stop and get clearance from the air traffic controllers before crossing 24 Left and proceeding to the airport terminals. Because of the volume of traffic at LAX, all of this must be done quickly to make room for other incoming aircraft. In July, for example, there were an average of 2,024 takeoffs and landings at LAX each day -- with about 950 of those on the north runways. At peak times, planes are landing on 24 Right every couple of minutes.

The problem is that not every plane stops exactly where it should on those taxiways. There are a variety of reasons for this, including miscommunication between the tower and the pilot, and pilot disorientation.

So what can be done about the problem?

The Hahn plan called for moving 24 Left south. That would have required tearing down and rebuilding terminals one to three -- a pricey, logistically difficult proposition. Hahn also wanted to put a central check-in center east of the airport, putting more vehicle traffic closer to neighborhoods.

The community said no thanks, although the Federal Aviation Administration approved that plan while also approving the lawsuit settlement that stopped the project.


Confused yet? Welcome to Los Angeles, and please remain seated for the rest of this column. The FAA’s stance now is basically this: Do whatever it takes to move the runways farther apart because the rate of incursions is unacceptable.

The two north runways are currently 700 feet apart; the FAA believes they need to be a minimum of 1,040 feet apart. That would allow the airport to build a parallel taxiway between them.

The idea is to create more room for planes between the runways and to give air traffic controllers and pilots more time to talk before anyone does something ill-advised -- such as colliding with another fuel-laden airplane packed with people. In aviationspeak, this is known loosely as an undesirable outcome.

So, there is talk now of moving the northernmost runway about 340 feet closer to the community of Westchester. Of course, this wouldn’t eliminate the fundamental problem. Planes landing on the outer runway still would have to cross the inner runway. It should be noted that the problem isn’t unique to LAX.

Is there widespread agreement that moving the runways apart would make the airport that much safer?

No. Many people who live near the airport -- as well as public officials who represent them -- believe that separating the runways is more about commerce than safety. Specifically, they think it’s all about the desire on the part of LAX and the FAA to have runways that can accommodate lots of the new large jumbo jets.


These planes are called “Group VI” aircraft. This includes the Airbus A380, which is due to begin flying into LAX next year. The plane is 239 feet long, has a wingspan of 261 feet, can carry up to 525 passengers and can hold -- gulp -- nearly 82,000 gallons of fuel. Boeing is also building its own Group VI airplane. The problem is that the Airbus is so massive that LAX controllers would have to move all other aircraft out of the way to get the jumbo jet to and from the runways. At a busy airport such as LAX, that’s a pain in the rear.

What about the $330 million recently spent to move the south runways apart?

That project, too, was done for safety reasons because of a high number of incursions over the years. Even though the south runways are now 800 feet apart and are thought to be safer, they are still too close together to allow the Group VI planes to seamlessly blend in with other airport traffic.

How do the north runways play into this?

If those two runways are moved at least 1,040 feet apart, LAX will have a much easier time handling the comings and goings of the new Godzilla-like airplanes. A lot of people -- particularly in the FAA, the airport, City Hall and in the business community -- think that makes sense. It should be noted that no one knows how many Group VI planes will eventually fly into LAX. Current estimates are that a dozen or so will use the airport in the next few years.

And what do the airport’s neighbors think?

“It’s easy to sit back in Washington and the offices of the airport and say it’s not that big a deal, but if you live there I think you would have a different opinion,” said Mike Arias, president of the Westchester-Playa del Rey Neighborhood Council.

Obviously, neighbors are concerned. Moving the one runway closer to Westchester, they fear, would mean more noise and pollution. At this point, the closest home to the northernmost runway is about 1,300 feet away. Most homes are farther but still well within earshot of LAX.

Airport officials believe noise would be increased for only a few homes and that no homes would need to be razed. Lincoln Boulevard may have to be put into a tunnel under the new runway, and several businesses near Lincoln and Sepulveda boulevards would probably have to be razed and relocated, including a very busy In-N-Out Burger.


The bottom line?

Many airport activists and neighbors question everything airport officials say to them. And they raise some interesting points. Among them: Why not install the latest ground radar technologies at LAX? And what about the runway safety light system being tested at the Dallas airport, thus far with good results? Might that work at LAX and reduce the need to move runways?

Neighbors also would like to know whether making LAX more efficient and more receptive to bigger aircraft is undermining the city’s efforts to steer air traffic to other regional airports. We’ll discuss that next week. Meanwhile, the ball is now in the court of NASA’s Ames Research Center, which has been contracted to study the issue over the next six months. One might expect that the agency that has managed to distribute spacecraft across the solar system will figure this one out.

Ultimately it will be Villaraigosa’s call, but probably not until after he runs for reelection. In the meantime, the planes keep on coming.

Next week: We’ve sadly run out of space without tackling the important issue of raccoons and traffic signals in Pasadena. So we’ll pick it up there Monday.