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

April 25, 2007
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.

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.

Opposition continued under former Mayor James Hahn, who agreed to scale back the plans but was forced to shift focus to deal with security issues after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Villaraigosa brokered a deal over legal challenges to the plan, but LAX neighbors remain wary.

``We are looking at the milestones promised by the city,'' said Denny Schneider of the group Regional Solutions to Airport Congestion. ``We are expecting good cooperation, but I'm not sure we've seen it yet. Things are not as smooth as one would like.''

Among the stumbling blocks is whether to expand LAX's north runways to accommodate mega-jets.

``We have been working 14 years-plus on a so-called master plan, and (LAWA) tried to dictate to us and ignore us,'' Schneider said. ``The present mayor, at least, is working with us and looking forward, and that's appreciated. But we are still very concerned about what will happen in the near future.''

Options being considered include creating a special mid-field terminal with 40 extra gates for the jumbo jetliners.

``The fact is (the jets) will have the ability to fly past us to other destinations,'' said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who heads the council's Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee and supports the proposal.

``We have to recognize we won't be the only game in town for the airlines and have to deal with them.''

Relations need fixing

Villaraigosa also has been working to improve the passenger experience at LAX. But for the Air Transport Association, which represents the airlines, the challenge is mending relations that have frayed for decades.

``Going back 20 years or so, the relationship between the airlines and LAX was probably the best in the country,'' said John Meenan, executive vice president of the group. ``There was a great sense of mutual interest and cooperation.

``We would hope, with the appointment of a new executive director, that we could return to that type of relationship.''

In recent years, it has been left to the airlines and concessionaires to modernize their facilities. But little has been done because of rent and lease disputes.

A number of airlines are contesting city efforts to increase rents, and last week United Airlines added a $10 surcharge on LAX passengers to pay for the higher rent.

There also is an ongoing dispute about improving concession contracts at LAX. Most airport concessionaires now are operating on a month-to-month basis.

``They aren't going to want to make improvements until they know they are going to be there awhile,'' Hahn said. ``What's a shame is that I don't think we have gotten the revenue from our concessions that we could have. We are losing money when you compare us to other airports.''

The lack of flair among LAX concessions also bothers some, who note airports in Las Vegas, Hong Kong, San Francisco and other cities have high-end or unique specialty shops.

``The fact is, people spend more and more time within the airports because of security issues,'' Kyser said. ``There is money there we could capture.''

While proposals have been floated to imbue LAX with more of the famed Hollywood mystique and bring in more local operations -- from Home Boy Bakers to Dutton's Book Stores -- no real movement has occurred.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the airport area, said such developments would have only limited impact.

``People are going to want to come to Los Angeles,'' Rosendahl said. ``The purpose of an airport is to get them in and on their planes and off their planes and out as smoothly as possible.''

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