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.