LAX Risks Losing Its High Profile If It Can't Get Modernization Off Ground

The new airport director also will have to pursue ambitious plans to re-route the Green Line to LAX, build an in-line baggage-screening system and sort out community-outreach projects hammered out as part of a fragile legal settlement with airport...


Nothing may be more symbolic of the challenges facing LAX than the half-ton chunk of plaster that fell recently from its iconic theme restaurant, revealing layers of rust damage caused by years of neglect.

Most of the existing structures were built in the 1960s and have been modernized only once -- when the Bradley International Terminal was erected for the 1984 Olympics. But city officials have spent $115 million developing grandiose renovation plans that have gone nowhere.

In recent months, however, Los Angeles International Airport has gotten a bit more attention: A $4 billion upgrade was launched at the Bradley Terminal; a $333 million replacement of the south runway was completed; and the city approved spending $1. 8million to repair the landmark Encounter restaurant.

And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is preparing to name a new executive director for Los Angeles World Airports -- an administrator to oversee the department's $1.2 billion budget, resolve lingering disputes about airline and concession leases, and determine how LAX will accommodate a new generation of mega-jets.

Quickly defining the future of the nation's second-largest international gateway in an increasingly competitive travel market is widely considered a crucial part of keeping both local and national economies healthy.

``One of the problems with LAX is that it could be any airport in Anywhere, USA,'' said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. ``It has so many problems that whoever is brought in is going to have a lot of sleepless nights.''

LAX serves nearly 17 million travelers annually, second only to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. It contributes more than $61billion a year to the local economy and generates more than 400,000 jobs.

But some say LAX's high profile could be jeopardized unless officials expedite plans to accommodate the 555-passenger Airbus 380 and other mega- jets being eyed by the airlines. The city is studying plans to add more gates, but without quick action, airlines could make long-term commitments elsewhere, diverting both tourists and cargo to other destinations.

``San Francisco spent $1.8 billion and has 24 gates available now to accommodate the larger jets,'' said Michael Collins of L.A. Inc., the group responsible for promoting and luring conventions to the city. ``Los Angeles has 12. It is the market that is going to determine where these planes go. And if we don't have the space, they will go elsewhere.''

The new airport director also will have to pursue ambitious plans to re-route the Green Line to LAX, build an in-line baggage-screening system and sort out community-outreach projects hammered out as part of a fragile legal settlement with airport neighbors.

``Los Angeles today is the destination of choice,'' Collins said. ``But there is growing competition, and we need to do more if we are going to remain competitive.''

No stranger to plans

Villaraigosa is well aware of LAX's shortcomings. He has taken his time in selecting an executive director, searching for a visionary who can preserve and enhance the airport's economic impact while expanding regional airports and reducing community conflict.

``The mayor's aviation agenda includes initiatives in three broad areas,'' spokesman Matt Szabo said. ``First, the mayor wants to increase safety for passengers, workers, visitors and the surrounding communities. Second, the mayor wants to regionalize aviation travel.

``And third, the mayor wants to modernize Los Angeles International Airport. It ... should reflect the uniqueness and diversity of the city of Los Angeles.''

During the past 15 years, however, there has been no shortage of plans to develop LAX.

Former Mayor Richard Riordan was the first to broach the issue, generating widespread community opposition with a plan to handle 100million passengers a year and triple the amount of cargo at the facility.

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