Aug. 22, 2007

NASA will have six months to determine what should be done to improve safety along the northern runways at Los Angeles International Airport, as part of a $2 million report requested Monday by the Airport Commission.

The board voted 6-1 to commission the study by the NASA Ames Research Center, doubling the budget from an initial $900,000 price tag, while also shortening the suggested deadline from one year to six months.

The request for yet another evaluation comes just days after a near-collision on the airport's northern runways, which have been deemed unsafe and outdated by a series of reports released earlier this year.

``I feel very strongly that we are tempting fate,'' Commissioner Fernando Torres-Gil said. ``If and when an accident comes because we didn't do what we knew had to be done ... then we will be ultimately, morally responsible for what happens. We cannot wait longer than six months for this study.''

Commissioner Valeria Velasco cast the lone dissenting vote against the evaluation, saying the risk of so-called ``runway incursions'' at LAX can never be fully eliminated.

``Moving the northern runway isn't going to necessarily eliminate risks,'' Velasco said. ``Whenever we've had incursions at LAX, they have been due to human error one way or the other, either by the pilot or in the tower.''

Such was the case on Thursday afternoon, when mistakes by a pilot and a ground traffic controller led to a runway incursion on LAX's northern runways, according to airport and Federal Aviation Administration officials.

A WestJet Boeing 737 arriving from Calgary, Canada, came within 50 to 200 feet of a Northwest Airbus A320 that was taking off for Memphis just before 1 p.m., according to officials.

It was the airport's eighth runway incursion this year, matching the total number of near-collisions in 2006.

``The runway incursions don't seem to slow down,'' said Jon Russell, head of the West Coast office for the Airline Pilots Association, one of several groups that studied the northern runways earlier this year. ``The evidence is there and we've been very, very fortunate not to have an accident,'' Russell told the panel.

In other action Monday, the Airport Commission approved a $1.1 million contract with an architecture firm that will design plans to strengthen the crumbling Theme Building at LAX.

Gin Wong Associates will draw up plans to rebuild the exterior coating for the upper and lower arches of the space-age building, and to make seismic upgrades.

Officials estimated it will cost $10 million to upgrade the Theme Building, which opened in 1961 and is a historical monument.

A half-ton chunk of stucco fell from one of the upper arches in February. Engineers subsequently found rust and decay spreading through the web of metal that attaches the arches' stucco skin to their steel cores.

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