Airport Agency Chief Has Steered LAX out of Trouble

In her first year back in the pilot's seat, Lydia Kennard has managed to get some long-delayed projects off the ground.

Friends say there was another factor that caused her to leave: the caustic management style of then-Airport Commission President Ted Stein.

Several months later, City Controller Laura Chick announced that she had found "potential illegal acts" while conducting a routine audit of the airport department. An investigation of city contracting practices subsequently led to the resignation of Stein and of Hahn's airport deputy, Troy Edwards. The three-year inquiry ultimately led to the indictment of former Airport Commissioner Leland Wong, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery and conflict of interest.

Even though she was untouched by the scandal, Kennard said her friends, some of whom she's hung out with since nursery school, thought she was crazy to return to the city in October 2005. But she said she felt compelled to go back, citing "unfinished business."

Jack Driscoll, an aviation consultant who headed the agency from 1992 to 1999, initially hired Kennard in part to help him figure out how to modernize LAX through a new master plan.

"It's kind of funny because she started out with the master plan, and after a number of years she comes back and she solves our master planning problem," Driscoll said. "You think of how many years it took to get to that, and in a matter of months she closed the deal."

Precisely, it took 12 years, $150 million and blueprints designed under three mayoral administrations, but Kennard resolved the modernization stalemate in a matter of days last winter by crafting a deal with surrounding communities that lets LAX build several projects.

A host of lawsuits had threatened to derail the runway project and others in Hahn's controversial $11-billion LAX modernization plan.

The settlement Kennard brokered requires airport officials to shelve Hahn's proposal and start over.

Kennard's compromise generated, for the first time in decades, some goodwill in airport-area communities. It also allowed the agency to begin the $333-million south runway project, a $723-million refurbishment of the Tom Bradley International Terminal and a $390-million overhaul of LAX's baggage system.

"L.A. has some of the toughest political challenges in the nation," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. "It needs someone like Lydia, who is trusted and respected by those community groups."

Those relationships will be tested this winter when Kennard unveils a new plan to modernize LAX. It may include elements long despised by residents, such as moving the north runway a little closer to homes.

It's difficult to find anyone who is at odds with Kennard. In fact, she is so comfortable with her standing that she recently ribbed Airport Commission Vice President Valeria C. Velasco, who represents residents, by saying she wanted a piece of the north runway on her desk soon too.

Kennard lives in Altadena, on an estate she remodeled with her husband, Sammi Reeves, an electrical engineer who runs a construction management firm. The almost one-acre parcel features a step-down backyard with a swimming pool, a tennis court and massive oak trees.

In her spare time, Kennard aspires to take piano lessons and join an over-40 women's soccer league. She's also writing a book with the working title "Testosterone Wars," which will feature lighthearted stories about women thrust into male-dominated professions. The book will include a chapter devoted to her experiences at LAX after 9/11.

"It was hard for me during 9/11 to translate some of the things that were happening and how men were in a different kind of communication level than I was, and still are," Kennard recalled recently. "If someone says 'you rope-a-doped him' " -- a tactic used by boxer Muhammad Ali -- "and you're standing there and you don't know what it is you missed, the whole context is lost."

Now, as she directs an organization with 3,300 employees and a $1.2-billion annual budget, Kennard must coordinate with officials in three cities and two counties, as well as state and federal lawmakers and agencies.

The mayor wants her to move air traffic to Ontario and Palmdale. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl wants her to figure out how to get the Metro Green Line to LAX. The FAA wants her to make LAX's north airfield safer.

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