LAX runway review is urged

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Alarmed by a recent report about the high number of close calls between planes on the ground at LAX, some airport commissioners are urging officials to speed up a controversial review of how to make the facility’s north runways safer.

Commissioners said the federal report provides the latest evidence that the runway safety issue must be addressed as soon as possible. They plan to bring up the matter at today’s Board of Airport Commissioners meeting.

“Enough is enough,” commission President Alan Rothenberg said in an interview late last week. “We’re going to really push hard with staff and our lawyers to find some way to make things move faster.”

But that “some way” could mean not waiting for a safety study recently commissioned to NASA that has been bottled up in Washington. The study had been agreed upon by airport officials and community activists in Westchester, which hugs LAX’s northern boundary.

The report that heightened commissioners’ concerns, issued Dec. 5 by the Government Accountability Office, found that since 2001, Los Angeles International Airport tallied the most on-ground close calls of any major U.S. airport. It also found that LAX led the nation in the most serious types of such incidents.

Several of the airport’s most dramatic incidents in the last 18 months occurred on the north side. One hair-raising example -- in which two jets carrying 296 people came within 37 feet of each other -- was highlighted in the cover letter that accompanied the report.

Rothenberg said he now believes the north airfield safety study that commissioners recently ordered from NASA’s Ames Research Center is unnecessary, and he will urge officials to proceed without it.

The stance angered residents who requested the NASA study, contending that five previous reports that found that the northernmost runway must be moved closer to their homes were conducted by groups that stood to benefit from the project.

“I’m frustrated with their game-playing, which is ‘If it’s expansionary, we’ll do it; if it’s not, we’re going to hold off,’ ” said Denny Schneider, a Westchester resident who leads the LAX watchdog group Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX, have argued for years that putting more space between the north airfield’s two parallel runways is necessary to keep aircraft farther apart.

Close calls most often occur after airplanes that land on the outer runway get too close to the inner runway, where airplanes take off, as they make their way to the terminals on a series of taxiways. Officials hope to eliminate that problem on LAX’s south side when a $333-million project to further separate its two parallel runways and install a center taxiway is completed late next year.

Airport agency officials concurred with Rothenberg, saying they’re going to advise the commission to order a north airfield environmental review as early as Jan. 14, without waiting for the NASA study.

“I don’t think we have time to waste,” the airport agency’s executive director, Gina Marie Lindsey, said in an interview Friday. “Every piece of information we get indicates there’s a problem there that needs to be fixed.”

The environmental review, required under state and federal law, will consider ways to improve north airfield safety and the likely effects of each method. Such a study is expected to take about two years, making commissioners reluctant to wait until the NASA study delay can be resolved.

Lindsey said she would ask planners to study moving the northernmost runway 340 feet, separating the runways by 100 feet, moving the inner runway closer to the terminals and building a taxiway around the end of the runways.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the area around LAX, agreed that the environmental review should move forward but added that he believed an independent safety study by NASA still was necessary.

Airport commissioners ordered the NASA study last summer, but the agency has yet to begin its work. Lindsey said NASA officials promised to call her today to let her know whether they can proceed. The report was held up by a policy shift at NASA to focus its resources on space-related issues, she said.

Hoping to find other ways of addressing safety concerns, Rosendahl said, he has also asked LAX air traffic controllers to testify about staffing before the council’s Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee on Wednesday. The controllers union has said low staffing, not runway configuration, is the main safety problem.

The federal report found that short staffing in control towers contributed to an increase in close calls at airports. LAX controllers say they are overworked and recently completed an analysis that they say shows that close calls increased in years when the tower had lower staffing.

Adding controllers in the tower at LAX, if necessary, would be an easy way to improve safety on the north airfield, Rosendahl said.