City airport commissioners decided Monday to go ahead with a sixth study of whether the north runways at Los Angeles International Airport are too close together, and if so, what to do about it.
A group of five studies released earlier this year concluded that the two parallel runways are too close and suggested moving the northernmost runway. Community activists fear the new study will dovetail with its predecessors and set in motion a process to push the northernmost runway -- and the resulting noise and pollution -- at least 340 feet toward Westchester and busy Lincoln Boulevard.
The vote on the study proposal, which has been under consideration for some time, came just days after another near-collision on the ground at LAX's north airfield.
The seven-member Board of Airport Commissioners voted at its meeting near Van Nuys Airport to spend up to $2 million on the study to be conducted by NASA. The only dissent came from Commissioner Valeria Velasco, who argued that the scope of the study was too broad.
But the other commissioners made it clear they wanted a report that would examine safety and the ability of the airport's north runways to handle the next generation of large aircraft.
Commissioner Walter Zifkin even chided community activists, hinting that they were trying to slow the study process to delay a possible north runway move.
"I for one will not accept the responsibility of not doing everything that can be done to prevent an accident in the event of human error," Zifkin said. "I could not tolerate in the event of such an accident that feeling that I was remiss and that the blood of innocent people was on my hands. Others may be willing to take that [risk], but I am not."
Approving the study was a small bureaucratic step, but it revisited many of the issues between LAX and its neighbors, some of whom have long suspected that the airport and city leaders want to sacrifice their homes and businesses for airport expansion. In terms of acreage, LAX is far smaller than the massive airports in cities such as Dallas, Denver and Chicago.
Airport officials recently separated the two runways on the south airfield. Since 1997, there have been 64 so-called incursions between aircraft on LAX's south runways and 20 on the north runways, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
In his 2005 campaign, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he opposed an airport master plan proposed by then-Mayor James K. Hahn that would have moved the runways apart by tearing down terminals 1 through 3. Spokesman Matt Szabo said Monday that Villaraigosa still opposed the plan, adding that he would back moving the runway north only for safety reasons. Airport commissioners are appointed by the mayor.
"The safety of passengers that travel in and out of LAX is the mayor's priority," Szabo said. "He remains opposed to moving the runway unless there is a definitive reason to do so to protect the passengers."
Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the area north of LAX, has gone one step further. He has on several occasions told community members that the north runway would be moved toward Westchester "over my dead body."
Rosendahl was among those who argued the five previous studies were flawed because they all were done by groups or organizations that might benefit from the move.
In response, a 16-member committee was formed to study the issue. The group met for the first time last week and came up with a list of questions for the new NASA study that focused on whether the present configuration was, in fact, the cause of runway incursions.
"We all want a runway system that is safe, there are a lot of things that could be done, including slowing down the traffic so that if someone does mess up there is time to recover," said Denny Schneider, president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion.
His worry is that airport commissioners aren't just looking to make the airport safer, but also seek to expand its ability to handle more aircraft.
Still, several commissioners said the community group's proposed study questions don't go far enough. They also wanted to know whether the runways could handle giant aircraft such as the Airbus A380 -- due to begin flying to LAX next year -- and what effect the runways have on the airport's operational ability.
Most important, commissioners wanted NASA to propose solutions.
Velasco, who cast the lone no vote, argued that risk will never be eliminated at the airport and reminded her colleagues that near-collisions at LAX have been due to human error.
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey is expected to visit Los Angeles on Thursday and meet with city officials to discuss the airport. On Monday, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency's stance -- that the north airfield is flawed and must be fixed for safety -- remains unchanged.
"We've gone on record with our position, and to date the airport has not formally presented us with another proposal for the north airfield," Gregor said.