Airport chief to explain actions

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles airport director Gina Marie Lindsey -- about to complete her first year overseeing one of the world’s busiest travel gateways -- will spend the next few days explaining to her bosses what role she played in the awarding of $67 million in LAX construction contracts.

Today she will appear before airport commissioners. On Wednesday, she will sit before a City Council committee, whose chairwoman has recommended that the body take jurisdiction over one of two contracts in dispute.

The contracts grew controversial over the last two weeks after questions were raised about Lindsey’s role in the selection of firms competing for a share of a huge expansion planned at Los Angeles International Airport.


Lindsey has repeatedly said there was nothing improper about the awards. And a number of city and airline officials last week rose to her defense, praising her for advancing major improvements at LAX that had languished for years.

Since her appointment by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last May, Lindsey, 55, has reversed a decline in lucrative international flights, largely by following through on long-standing promises to build new facilities.

Lindsey “is a real change agent. She has done an amazing job,” said City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents neighborhoods near LAX. “More than $100 million worth of studies have been done on the airport, and nothing has happened since 1983. For the first time, I’m seeing real progress.”

The airport’s $5- to $8-billion master plan calls for adding a midfield concourse and making renovations to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, including creating gates for wide-bodied aircraft such as the new Airbus A380 and Boeing 787. It is the largest capital-improvement program in the city’s history.

In the last two months, Lindsey has managed to get through the board of airport commissioners more than $106 million in engineering, architectural and project management contracts related to the modernization projects.

“We are getting out of the planning mode and into the building mode,” Lindsey said. “This is a unique and exciting time for Los Angeles with respect to its airports. It is an opportunity for all of us.”

Lindsey also lists as accomplishments plans to repair and renovate other Los Angeles World Airport facilities -- LAX is the largest of four regional airports operated by the city -- and mend strained relations with airlines and surrounding neighborhoods unsettled by airport operations.

International carriers, several of which have considered moving flights elsewhere because of LAX’s aging facilities, credit Lindsey with jump-starting renovations, which has encouraged them to stay. This year, international flights have increased, and the airport has managed to attract new carriers, such as Alitalia and Emirates.

“The confidence in the airline community that LAX is moving forward with improvements is indeed higher than it was 18 months ago,” said Frank Clark, executive director of the nonprofit organization that represents international airlines at LAX.

Clark said, however, that international carriers are concerned that the recent contracting controversy might stall the newfound momentum. If the city’s review drags on and delays the modernization efforts, carriers could take service to other airports, he said.

“I have all due respect for a transparent procurement process that follows city guidelines,” Clark said, “but the ongoing debate and criticisms of the process are raising yellow caution flags.”

Lindsey has been dogged by accusations that she manipulated the contracting process in order to hire two companies that she previously worked with -- DMJM Aviation Inc. of Florida, and Fentress Architects of Denver. The companies were awarded project management and architecture contracts worth almost $67 million, although other companies were initially preferred during the selection process.

Airport sources, who asked that they not be identified for fear of retribution, said that Lindsey took the unusual step of seeking a second evaluation panel in both cases after the first panels recommended other companies. Lindsey has denied this.

Lindsey and airport staff members are scheduled to be questioned about the contracts before the Airport Commission and the City Council committee that oversees LAX. The city controller’s office also has opened a review of the DMJM and Fentress contracts.

“We need to get this behind us as soon as possible. A lot is at stake,” said Lindsey, who receives a $305,000 salary. “It’s going to be a very long road to make LAX a transportation icon. We need to start on it the right way. We are absolutely sure we have done that.”

Los Angeles officials cited Lindsey’s strong leadership abilities when they chose her from a field of 70 candidates last year to replace Lydia Kennard, who retired after her second stint at the city’s airport agency.

Lindsey is known in the aviation industry as a trailblazer who became one of the first women to head an airport when she was named director of the Alaska International Airport System in 1989.

She is also the former aviation director of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where she pushed through plans to build a third runway and expand the facility.

She played such a pivotal role in shepherding the renovation that officials named part of a terminal concourse after her: the Gina Marie Lindsey International Arrivals Hall.

“I was delighted she came to LAX,” said City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who chairs the council committee that oversees airports. “She saw immediately that we needed to move forward on the modernization. We were losing business. We were losing respect in the industry.”

Before Lindsey arrived, the effort to devise a politically palatable expansion plan for the airport had taken 16 years and cost more than $150 million.

A lack of cohesive political leadership, a history of mistrust between the city’s airport agency and nearby communities, grandiose visions for expansion and an incredibly complex planning process left officials without a modernization blueprint.

Today, carriers say they will not bring new large aircraft to LAX if there are not enough parking spots for them at the terminals. Passengers also have consistently ranked LAX as below average in surveys of the nation’s busiest airports because of its aging facilities, cramped terminals and lack of quality concessions.

But in the current effort to reverse the decline of LAX, there have been complaints about Lindsey’s management style and decisions to hire executives from outside the airport department.

Lindsey acknowledges that she probably has irritated longtime employees by recruiting people from outside for six key positions. She says she also has opened up the hiring process so outsiders can apply for the general manager position at LAX.

Airport officials, who requested anonymity, say that Lindsey has ignored veteran staff members who are more knowledgeable about local airport operations than the new hires. The officials complain that Lindsey has brought in people she worked with in Seattle, including Amy Shaw, who runs the concessions department, and Jeff Fitch, who oversees security at LAX, Van Nuys, Palmdale and Ontario airports.

In an anonymous letter to the city’s Airport Commission, a writer who claimed to be an 18-year employee of the city’s airport agency said that Lindsey “alienated” employees by hiring outsiders with little experience in the aviation industry.

The letter further stated that Lindsey and new members of her management team routinely made negative comments about work done by longtime airport department employees. Lindsey defended the people she has hired, saying that executives from other airports have different experiences and innovative ideas that can benefit the modernization plan for LAX.

“Bringing in new people will help get us going,” Lindsey said. “We don’t have a lot of time to do this. Other airports are way ahead of us. We need an infusion of energy to turn LAX around. We need people who are very good.”