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Our right to gripe

Look, if I had Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dough, I’d be zipping around by private jet too. What’s a few tons of greenhouse gases on my conscience compared with the tribulations I face navigating commercial airports?

Schwarzenegger commutes between L.A. and Sacramento via Golden State One to save time and maybe dodge the paparazzi, who, unlike Starbucks and skycaps, are everywhere at Los Angeles International Airport. Me? I’d just want to spare myself the torment of that Space Age, Stalinist-style purgatory we call LAX.

LAX ranks near the bottom of almost every survey of travelers, except one nearly 15 years ago that commended its no-smoking policies, which is like congratulating a restaurant for stocking forks.

It’s the world’s fifth-busiest airport, with about 60 million passengers a year -- the equivalent of every man, woman and child in Britain, and all of them in line in front of me at the security checkpoint.

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LAX is aging faster than the “60 Minutes” audience. When is someone going to wake up this “Rip Van Winkle of American airports,” as infrastructure wise-man Steve Erie refers to LAX. Over 10 years, $147 million was spent just for consultants’ advice. Three years ago, the feds OKd an $11-billion modernization plan. Last year, the city began a separate $723-million makeover at the Bradley terminal. Just 10 days ago, the airport commission greenlighted $25 million for a Florida company just to “manage preparations” to expand and modernize LAX. For years we’ve been tantalized with promises of more, more, more; better, better, better -- but when, when, when?

Every five years, Los Angeles pays a private company to survey the performance of one or another of the city’s moneymaking departments -- the harbor, the DWP and the airports. These reports can be quite instructive. Four years ago, harbor jefes were found to have no clear vision, and the department was “largely reactionary” and “perceived as living off the fruits of its prior efforts.”

This year, it’s the airports’ turn: LAX, Ontario, Palmdale and Van Nuys. All this month, airport consultants are asking a chosen group of “stakeholders” -- residents, community groups, businesses and business groups, elected officials and government administrators and the traveling public -- to assess matters such as concessions, parking and safety.

The survey’s 1-to-5 rating scale and space for comments (I fit most of the Declaration of Independence in one window, just to test) are useful but too limited. Once every five years isn’t enough, and every passenger, every resident is an airport “stakeholder.” So why not let all of us rate the place all the time?

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I can hardly believe I’m about to hold up the TSA as a good example, but the Transportation Security Administration has a pretty fair version of just this service. In January, it started a blog: www.tsa.gov/blog. If a blog can be a page-turner, this one is. There’s a Facebook-like feature profiling TSA employees, and under a heading called -- believe it -- “Gripes and Grins,” the rest of us can cut loose with “can you top this?” stories about airport security, like the one about the passenger who lost a kidney. The TSA screener wanted him to remove the surgical dressing over the foot-long incision, to get a look at the staples in his gut.

I love this blog. It’s the cathartic comebacks you were afraid to make at the time. Even if no official ever reads it, it feels righteous just to praise the laudable and dump on the laggards, dullards and power-trippers.

It’s disorderly and unscientific -- and scissors out the nastiest complaints; check the Delete-O-Meter feature. But every government agency should have a blog like this. Public service is customer service. If the waiter at Olive Garden can give you a customer comment card with the bill, why can’t official America do the same? Why can’t every DMV clerk you deal with, every employee at the Bureau of Public Works, every TSA inspector hand you a “how am I doing?” rating card with his or her name on it?

And government agencies had better get there first, before private websites do. Already there’s ratemycop.com, a month-old, private, L.A.-based website that lets citizens name names and badge numbers after law enforcement encounters.

Any feedback system would turn up the inevitable, gratuitous percentage of troublemakers who snark on autopilot. But if an online pat on the back or a mail-in smackdown could remedy a problem that officials wouldn’t have known about or acknowledged otherwise, I’d call that tax money well spent.

And wouldn’t you feel ever so much better about flying if the screener announced politely, and beforehand, “Hi, my name is Bill, and I’ll be groping your thighs for any possible metal devices today”?


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