Neighbors fume over LAX plan to redesign runways

Los Angeles International Airport is by far the nation's worst commercial airport for dangerous near-collisions between aircraft on the ground, but attempts to fix the problem have run into powerful political opposition.

The solution at the airport with four parallel runways nestled against the Pacific Ocean is straightforward, according to federal aviation regulators and reports by safety experts. They say runways on the north side of the airport should be moved farther apart.

That plan has infuriated the airport's neighbors, who cite concerns over pollution, noise and decimation of businesses.

As accidents at airports have become a larger share of commercial plane crashes, federal regulators are increasingly pushing for safer airport designs that minimize chances of ground collisions and crashes off the ends of runways.

But, as the clash in Los Angeles exemplifies, it's not always easy for airports to get approval for changes, even when they are designed to make critical safety improvements. Similar attempts at safety enhancements have run into trouble at dozens of airports across the country.

"It has played out over any number of airports and it represents a real challenge," says Jane Garvey, former chief of the Federal Aviation Administration who also served as head of Boston's Logan International Airport.

"Airport directors have to balance the very real issues around safety with community concerns," Garvey says.

Activists in the neighborhoods north of the airport — who for decades have had an uneasy relationship with the nation's fifth-busiest airfield — say they do not accept the arguments that the current airport design needs fixing.

"The airport has held several meetings with the public to try to convince everyone that there is a safety problem on the north side of the airport," says Denny Schneider, president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion. "They failed."

Clashes at other airports

Similar debates are playing out at other airports.

In a report last month, the Transportation Department's Inspector General found that 11 of the nation's 30 largest airports lacked adequate safety areas at the ends of runways, but face significant challenges getting approval to fix the problems.

At Chicago's Midway Airport, surrounded by dense commercial and residential neighborhoods, federal and local authorities rejected adding runway safety areas because the costs of relocating nearby businesses was too high, the Inspector General's report said.

The safety zones designed to stop runaway jets were installed at Midway after a 6-year-old boy died when a jet skidded off a snowy runway and struck a passing car on Dec. 8, 2005.

Los Angeles' two northern runways also lack adequate safety areas. An even bigger concern is the risk of two speeding jets striking each other on the ground.

According to safety experts and the FAA, that risk was on full display on Aug. 16, 2007. A WestJet Boeing 737 landed on Runway 24 Right, the airport's northernmost landing strip. Before heading to the terminals, the jet had to cross Runway 24 Left, which lies only 700 feet away.

Because of a mix-up between pilots and air-traffic controllers, the WestJet pilots began to cross the other runway just as a Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 accelerated for takeoff. The WestJet pilots slammed on the brakes and stopped just short of the runway as the Northwest jet raced by only 37 feet away, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board found.

From 2000 through 2007, Los Angeles had 16 near-collisions on runways that the FAA classified as the most serious, the most of any airport. Chicago's O'Hare International was second during the period with nine.

The airport sought five separate studies in 2007 and each one found that the existing layout of the two runways on the north side of the airport create a safety hazard.

'Over my dead body'

None of the arguments makes much sense to Schneider, who lives in the adjacent Westchester neighborhood. Graced by cool sea breezes, the area is a sought-after place to live.

But residents here harbor decades of resentment over airport noise and expansion that has razed thousands of homes and, in their view, left promises unkept at restoring local businesses.

When the city in December 2004 approved a project to upgrade the airport, including the north runways, the proposal was hit by lawsuits. Schneider called it an attempt at airport expansion, not a safety enhancement.

Local political figures promised to shut it down. Bill Rosendahl, the city councilman representing the area, vowed the north runway would be moved "over my dead body."

Led by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had run for office opposing the airport's plan, a compromise was reached in late 2005. A new study would be conducted on the north runways by NASA and a blue-ribbon panel of academic experts. The results are due later this year.

Rosendahl calls earlier studies raising safety concerns "irresponsible." But he vows to allow changes if the latest review finds improvements necessary.

"Is this a critical part of safety? If the answer is yes, we will move forward," Rosendahl says.