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LAX: Is There A Quicker Fix? $9.6 Billion Hahn Plan Too Large, Some Say

LAX: Is There A Quicker Fix?

$9.6 Billion Hahn Plan Too Large, Some Say


Staff Reporter

Perhaps L.A. Mayor James Hahn’s $9.6 billion plan to overhaul Los Angeles International Airport can be completed in most of our lifetimes.

But for anyone over 50, it might be touch and go.

Expected opposition from the airlines, litigation from nearby residents, environmental delays, planning and technical glitches all these could drag the projected completion date well beyond the expected 10 to 12-year timeframe, turning LAX into a long-lasting nightmare.

Which begs the question: isn’t there a faster, cheaper and less disruptive way to upgrade LAX to accommodate recent security concerns and at least some future growth?

The Business Journal put that question to several airport and infrastructure experts, most of whom said that LAX could be modernized without spending quite so much time and money.

“The mayor’s team is proposing all this on the basis that it really looks neat,” said Denver-based aviation consultant Michael Boyd. “But will it really make the airport more efficient? There are other ways to upgrade this facility, probably for less time and money. And don’t forget, the bigger the program is, the more of a target it becomes for opposition.”

Boyd and other experts suggested several alternatives for a more modest proposal than the one Hahn put forward earlier this month:

– Instead of tearing down Terminals 1, 2 and 3 and rebuilding from scratch, why not renovate them on an as-needed basis? With only the Bradley International Terminal getting a major overhaul to accommodate the next generation of super-jumbo jets, several billion dollars and years of construction and inconvenience could be averted.

– Widening the space between the northern set of runways just enough to meet federal safety requirements but not so much as to require moving of the three terminals. The major widening would thus take place on the southern set of runways to accommodate the anticipated handful of larger super-jumbo jets.

– Reducing or eliminating the underground baggage conveyance system whose cost is estimated at more than $1 billion. Bags could be moved using a much cheaper shuttle system.

– Putting the main offsite parking facility closer to the airport. This would reduce the length of any people-mover and baggage conveyance systems that would need to be built.

Moving chessboard pieces

These more modest proposals would still widen runways to alleviate safety concerns, make some accommodation for the next generation of super-jumbo jets, reserve the center of the terminal horseshoe for increased security, and move the outer security perimeter well away from terminals and airplanes.

But according to some aviation experts, it would do so for maybe half the cost of the Hahn plan and could be accomplished more quickly and likely face less opposition.

“Look, this $9.6 billion that Hahn is proposing to spend is just about the same amount (former L.A. Mayor Richard) Riordan proposed for his expansion plan,” said Stephen Erie, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who is writing a book on the region’s infrastructure. “At least there you were spending money to grow the airport. Here you’re basically moving pieces around on a giant chessboard.”

Since the airport is adding only minimal capacity to stay within the 78 million passenger-per-year cap that Hahn pledged, a scaled-down plan is more appropriate, he said.

For example, if more super-jumbo jets than anticipated enter service in the next 10 years, runways and terminals could be reconfigured at that time on an as-needed basis. If an underground baggage conveyance system is deemed necessary, it could be built later and at a shorter ground distance. And if the security situation changes, airport officials aren’t stuck with a parking facility more than a mile away from the terminals.

This scaled-down plan would free up billions of dollars for L.A. officials to take steps to make outlying airports more attractive to air passengers, a goal that Hahn has repeatedly urged. Those dollars not spent on LAX could fund much needed transportation systems to connect to these distant city-owned airfields in Ontario and Palmdale. And they could add facilities at both airfields.

(In the shorter term, L.A. officials could move to boost traffic at Ontario International Airport by lowering landing fees and restoring marketing funds.)

Not everyone agrees that a more scaled down renovation of LAX is the way to go.

“Nothing concerning airports is cheap,” said Andrew McKenzie, director of aviation modeling at the L.A. office of Citigroup Technologies. “Like all airports, LAX has been losing passengers since 9/11. If LAX does not spend the $10 billion or whatever it takes to start winning back those passengers, then the whole region will suffer because those passengers will go instead to Denver, to Las Vegas and to San Francisco.”

Traffic easing up

McKinzie said that passenger growth might take a long time to even approach pre-9/11 levels of 4 percent a year. But eventually, he said, much of that growth will return and if LAX is not attractive for those passengers, they will go elsewhere.

But Hahn has pledged to cap LAX at 78 million annual passengers a year. That’s a departure from Riordan’s proposed expansion plan five years ago that assumed the facility would grow to 98 million annual passengers.

Hahn has sided with opponents of LAX expansion who want to divert additional growth to outlying airports, chiefly Ontario International, but also John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Long Beach and Burbank airports in L.A. County and eventually Palmdale.

Given this political reality, slower passenger traffic in the wake of Sept 11 has only minimal impact on planning for an airport revamp. It simply means it may take two or three years longer to reach the cap than would have happened without 9/11.

Instead, a main focus of the Hahn plan is security. LAX has been mentioned frequently as a target for terrorist attacks. And its current layout in a tight horseshoe, with parking just a few yards away from the terminals, makes it especially vulnerable.

Any plan for modernizing the airport has to push the outer security perimeter further from the terminals and airplanes. That’s why most of the experts contacted by the Business Journal agreed that the parking lots inside the terminal had to go.

But not all the experts.

Boyd said that keeping cars away from terminals has not made air transportation system more secure. “The feds are wrong here,” he said. “L.A. officials should stand up to the federal edicts instead of capitulating and spending all this money.”

Another key assumption in the Hahn plan is that LAX would have to handle large numbers of super-jumbo jets. These so-called “A-380” double-decker jets are being designed by French-based Airbus S.A. and scheduled to start entering service in 2006. The planes, which will be able to hold up to 600 passengers and crew, have much bigger wingspans than any jets now in service. To accommodate them, airports around the world will need to spend billions of dollars to build wider runways and spaced out terminal gates.

But so far, only Airbus is producing these planes and there’s no guarantee that actual purchases will live up to projections. Boeing Co. is developing a plane that would have somewhat larger wingspans than the largest aircraft currently in service, but orders have been slower than anticipated.

An uncertain industry

L.A. Airport Commission President Ted Stein said projections now call for six of these planes to start using LAX by 2010. And they will likely first be used on long international flights.

But that’s just a projection within a highly volatile industry.

“You’re dealing with a very uncertain airline industry, especially in the wake of Sept. 11,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. “What the new airport plan does is bet billions of dollars that air travel trends will turn out a certain way. Who knows how many A-380s will ultimately be routed to L.A.?”

McKinzie points out that if no accommodation is made for the A-380, then all of these large jets and their lucrative passengers would be routed to other airports like Las Vegas or San Francisco. Yet demolishing three terminals and reconfiguring all the runways may be too much to spend to accommodate what may turn out to be no more than a handful of super-jumbo jets.

“Given this situation, you start with one terminal the Bradley International Terminal where these jets are likely to be used first,” Erie said. “Once the airplane proves itself, then you go ahead and upgrade the other terminals. If it doesn’t, then you make more modest upgrades of those terminals, which will need some work anyway. But think of all the billions you save in the meantime.”

But a Hahn administration official said that existing planes like the Boeing 747 are too big for the existing terminals, which were designed 45 years ago for smaller 707 aircraft. “The current terminal design is costing thousands of hours in delays because so few gates can handle larger planes,” said Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards.

The Hahn plan also assumes that an underground baggage conveyor system is needed to increase efficiency. Under the plan, when a passenger enters the remote check-in facility, the bags are put on the conveyor and whisked in 10 minutes all the way to the proposed central screening area inside the terminal horseshoe.

However, building such a system is very expensive, costing anywhere from $1 billion to $1.5 billion, depending on the configuration. And considering the trouble Denver’s airport had with its automated baggage system for months after that terminal’s 1995 opening, there’s no guarantee that such a system would work more smoothly here.

“Underground baggage tunnels cost an awful lot of money,” Boyd said. “Why not have a system of licensed baggage shuttles or set aside compartments in the people movers for the bags?”

Even Stein, one of the Hahn plan’s proponents, admitted that the baggage tunnel was not part of the original plan.

“The airlines, once they knew we were going with people movers, told us, ‘You have to do an underground tunnel for the baggage.’ That was their requirement and it added $1 billion to $1.5 billion to the plan.”

If building an underground baggage system is the price paid to appease the airlines, then it should be as short as possible to minimize the cost, Erie said.

“That alone is enough of an argument to have the main parking structures closer to the airport, maybe a place like Lot C, and not all the way out by the 405,” Erie said.

(Lot C itself, which sits in the final aircraft approach path, cannot be used for passenger facilities or multi-level parking structures, so some nearby land would have to be used.)

Switching the location of the parking and remote check-in would offer other advantages. It would shorten the length of the people mover system, one of the more expensive elements in the plan. It also would lessen the impact on the San Diego (405) Freeway. One of the biggest fears of Westchester residents and businesses is that putting the main parking facility just yards from the freeway in Manchester Square would cause backups right onto the freeway itself.

Finally, it would free up the Manchester Square area to become the consolidated rental car facility. “That’s perfect,” Erie said. “If you’re a tourist, you come right off the freeway and boom, you’re in the car return lane. Then you take a shuttle to the airport. No more getting lost finding the car rental place.”

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