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What LAX really needs  Nov 23, 2008

If, heaven forbid, there should be a crash on Los Angeles International Airport's dangerously configured north runways, family members of the victims can be consoled by the knowledge that their loved ones died next to a really attractive new facility.

That's the message being sent to air travelers by local leaders, such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles World Airports chief Gina Marie Lindsey, who on Monday introduced grandiose plans for renovations to the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX and other improvements that include a massive sky bridge across a taxiway to a new midway concourse. Sloping roof lines and other architectural innovations are meant to evoke breaking waves at L.A.'s beaches, and the taxiway bridge will present passengers with panoramic views as they shuttle to catch their flights.

Apparently no one informed Villaraigosa and Lindsey that the time for grand architectural statements at airports had passed even before the airline industry was devastated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Air traffic at LAX hasn't recovered since then, thanks to jittery fliers, soaring oil prices and the more recent global economic meltdown. Forecasters say roughly 20% fewer passengers will pass through LAX next year than in 2000. So who's going to pay the $5 billion to $6 billion that the improvements will cost?

Airport officials are quite correct when they say that the economic downturn is temporary and that LAX has serious problems that must be solved now. But when times are tight, one must prioritize. At the very top of the priority list should be reconfiguring the north airfield, where parallel runways built for an earlier generation of aircraft are too close together for safe operations. Putting more distance between them has proved politically impossible for the last decade because neighbors in nearby Westchester fear that moving one runway about 300 feet farther north would ruin their quality of life (even though they bought their houses knowing they were next door to an airport, and LAWA has spent millions soundproofing their homes).

Though five studies have concluded that it's essential to move the runway, airport commissioners last year ordered a sixth, whose sole purpose was to waste time. It's unknown when the study, by NASA, will be completed, but in the extremely likely event that it once again asserts the runway must be moved, there will be no money to pay for it because it will be sucked into the Bradley renovation.

It's not that LAWA's plans have no merit or don't accomplish anything important. Another high priority is building gates at the international terminal that can accommodate huge new aircraft such as the Airbus A380; airlines and passengers also often fume about remote gates at LAX that can only be accessed by shuttle bus. LAWA's renovations would solve those problems -- but there are cheaper and easier ways of doing it. Lindsey and Villaraigosa seem to have proceeded as if money were no object.

Yet it is. Landing fees are already soon to rise because of an ongoing renovation project at the Bradley terminal. The new plans can't possibly be funded by international carriers alone, meaning the cost will be spread to domestic airlines that won't benefit from the improvements. The probable result: Some will abandon LAX or scale back flights, possibly including Southwest Airlines, on track to be the airport's largest and most important carrier.

LAX is an economic engine for Southern California. At the rate traffic is shrinking, the north airfield controversy could potentially resolve itself -- as airlines flee the airport, officials might eventually be able to shut the airfield down completely. That also would bring about the end of L.A.'s status as a hub for Pacific Rim travel, the ruin of its tourism industry, the destruction of its economy and the death of any pretensions to being a world-class city. We expect better from our leaders.

What LAX really needs
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