In her strongest comments to date, Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion Blakey said Thursday it's imperative that the north runways at Los Angeles International Airport be moved farther apart before tragedy strikes.
"Get the north airfield project done," Blakey said at a luncheon at the LAX Marriott sponsored by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's an issue of safety and efficiency and economic competitiveness."
Blakey did not say if she supports a particular remedy for the north airfield. Five studies commissioned by the airport earlier this year suggested that LAX would be safer if the northernmost runway were moved more than 300 feet north, putting it closer to the communities of Westchester and Playa del Rey.
The north airfield consists of two parallel runways; the one closest to LAX terminals handles flights that are landing, while the one farthest away handles takeoffs. They are about 700 feet apart.
This week, the city's Board of Airport Commissioners voted to ask the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center to conduct a sixth study on the north runways.
Controversy arose again when airport-area residents and the elected officials who represent them said the board changed the study to focus less on safety than on efficiency and commerce -- in particular, whether reconfiguring the north runways would help LAX better handle more next-generation jumbo jets, such as the Airbus A380.
On Thursday, three elected officials -- Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe and Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl -- sent a letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, asking him to ensure that all options are studied.
"If a runway is to move that much closer to a residential area, there must be a clear safety rationale," they wrote.
Blakey is just weeks away from leaving her job to take a position in the private sector as head of the Aerospace Industries Assn., a trade group. She met with Villaraigosa before lunching with business leaders Thursday.
During his 2005 campaign, Villaraigosa promised not to expand LAX.
Los Angeles World Airports chief Gina Marie Lindsey introduced Blakey at Thursday's lunch, calling her one of the nation's foremost experts on transportation safety and reminding the audience that she was once the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airplane accidents.
Blakey told the audience that she views LAX as a facility that was once a "crown jewel" of the nation's airports, but now is in need of renovation and safety fixes. Area business leaders need to pave the way to get the fixes made, she said.
Blakey praised elected leaders for recently moving the airport's southern runways and building a taxiway in between. But she chided them for not having done the same on the north runway, and for allowing LAX to continue to lead the nation in near-collisions between planes on the ground.
"We don't have small accidents in this business," Blakey said, adding that an inefficient airport would lose business. "If the airport is slowing down and is not up to snuff, carriers will pack up and go elsewhere" to San Francisco, Las Vegas or Phoenix.
Some airport critics fear it's inevitable that the northernmost runway will be moved, because it is the cheapest and easiest way to separate the two flight paths. Moving the other runway south might require the demolition of Terminals 1 through 3, a far costlier and more time-consuming venture.
Airport Commissioner Valeria Velasco, who lives in the border community of Westchester and is a longtime airport critic, praised Blakey for her focus on safety. But she believes there are other options. "If the plan is to move north, there are going to be more delays and lawsuits," Velasco said.