Less than two years after legal battles were settled over the proposed expansion at Los Angeles International Airport, opponents charged Tuesday that officials are using recent safety problems to revive debate about the need for enlarging LAX.
The controversy erupted after airport commissioners voted this week to broaden a $2 million, six-month study on the safety of the north runway to include what LAX needs to accommodate a new class of jumbo aircraft.
But Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and critics said the move opens the door for relocating north runways closer to businesses in Westchester, disrupting the heart of that area's business district and violating the ``spirit'' of the legal settlements in 2005.
``This just increases the suspicion that the safety studies are really about justifying expansion,'' Rosendahl said of the new study parameters. ``They changed the focus of the new study from safety to enhancement and capacity.''
Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX and to whom many others on the council members defer in airport matters, said he plans to ask all parties to meet Thursday to refocus the study only on current safety issues.
The lawsuits that led to the settlement asserted that environmental studies, including traffic reviews, for a new LAX master plan were flawed.
Settlement of the lawsuits paved the way for a $10 billion, five-project modernization effort, including a midfield terminal to handle the new jumbo jets, and a focus on developing Ontario and Palmdale airports.
But now Denny Schneider, president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion -- one of the parties in the settlement representing communities near the airport -- said the group has begun to raise funds to hire an attorney and is rallying neighborhood opposition.
``There was no case where the settlement was ever intended to have any greater impact on the surrounding communities. That was what it was all about,'' said Schneider, whose group for 12 years has sought to have more air traffic handled at Ontario, Palmdale and other Southland airports.
Commission President Alan Rothenberg defended the panel's expansion of the study and said Tuesday that all options should be considered.
``This does nothing to violate the spirit or the word of the agreement. ... How can you study the safety of an airfield without looking at the classes of aircraft that are coming in and out? If it were only prop planes, the north runways would be perfectly safe,'' Rothenberg said.
He said airport and Federal Aviation Administration studies have long called for moving the runways farther apart and that looking north is only one option.
Rothenberg also said any moves would affect only a handful of businesses along Sepulveda Boulevard, and that any negative impact to Westchester should be weighed against potential economic losses to Los Angeles if the new jumbo carriers cannot land at LAX.
David Fleming, chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports moving the north runways, to keep LAX competitive with other airports, rather than taking the risk that carriers will bypass the airport altogether.
``We'll be a second-class city otherwise,'' Fleming said. ``This is the future of aviation.''
But former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represented the LAX area and is now a consultant to a Westchester business, said the commission's action reopens a war over LAX expansion.
``If (Los Angeles World Airports) is going to concentrate all this money at LAX and make runways bigger, ... the airlines who pay for it will have less incentive to think about regionalization,'' she said.
``Even though LAWA is doing things at Ontario, the commitment to LAX is so disproportionately huge we should be very skeptical about regionalization.''
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is still opposed to moving the north runways unless necessary for passenger safety, spokesman Matt Szabo said Tuesday.
But the mayor also would want to look at other options first, Szabo added.
A series of reports released in June found that the runways are cramped and can't handle air traffic safely or effectively, but opponents have questioned some of the conclusions.
Los Angeles World Airports Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey said LAX currently handles 61 million passengers a year, significantly below a 78.9 million cap through 2020.
But, she said, future safety needs should be addressed now.
``All we are saying is, as we are looking at how to safely handle today's traffic, we also need to look at how to safely handle tomorrow's traffic, because tomorrow is right around the corner,'' Lindsey said.
While efforts to spread air traffic across the region are part of the mix -- including flights to Mexico out of Ontario and domestic flights at Palmdale -- Lindsey said there is no scenario that will supplant LAX as the region's international destination.
``We're not going to shut the door on the international traffic at LAX,'' she said.