Courtesy of the NY Times.
January 14, 2002
Growing Pains for Los Angeles' Airport
By JAMES STERNGOLD
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 13 — The inauguration of a flight connecting a distant Los Angeles suburb with Hermosillo, a provincial city in Mexico, would not seem cause for toasts and speeches. But Mayor James K. Hahn himself led the festivities recently at the Ontario, Calif., airport, saying he was making a point about the future.
The Los Angeles mayor used the event to kick-start his plan for resolving what many experts regard as a kind of slow-motion air travel crisis. With Los Angeles International Airport badly overburdened and the communities around it fighting its expansion, the mayor is pushing new routes to the area's smaller airports, like Ontario's.
But the real symbolism of the ceremony there may have come when that first Aeromexico flight prepared to depart: only 11 passengers showed up, a clear sign that this airport, about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, is far from popular.
Even before Sept. 11, the Los Angeles region was facing enormous political and logistical problems with air travel, which is critical to its economic vigor. The terrorism crisis has only made the issue knottier. The sudden need for increased security has made any solution far more expensive. And the number of passengers has plunged since the attacks, creating uncertainty about just what the future needs will be.
Perhaps worse, the concerns over terrorism appear to have sapped whatever will may have existed to face up to local opposition and take the step that many planners prefer, a major expansion of Los Angeles International Airport, known as LAX.
To some, the mayor of a metropolis as sprawling as this one is wise to promote far-flung airports. But the airlines and many people in business say Mr. Hahn's plan is doomed to failure because few want to fly out of the more remote airports like Ontario's. They accuse the mayor of wishfully thinking that other communities will accept what those around LAX are rejecting.
The region around Ontario, an area far to the east known as the Inland Empire, supports expansion as an economic boon. But the linchpin of the mayor's plan is the construction of a big international airport at what was once a major Air Force base at El Toro, in the middle of Orange County.
That plan faces rigid opposition, too, and in March residents will vote for the third time in recent years on a referendum on whether to turn the old base into an airport or a public park. Polls indicate that the park plan will win, potentially leaving the mayor without space for handling the 30 million passengers a year intended for El Toro.
"The pre-Sept. 11 environment wasn't encouraging," said Jack Weiss, a member of the Los Angeles City Council who favors expanding the main airport. "Post-Sept. 11, I think there has been, properly, a shift with the focus on security, not expansion. But the two should not be mutually exclusive."
The mayor's aides say it is a matter of social equity.
"LAX has had to shoulder the bulk of the region's air traffic," said Troy Edwards, a deputy mayor in charge of the airport planning. "It's not fair for the people who live around there, and it's also not economically efficient."
Asked what the city had planned if the El Toro airport is not built, he said nothing.
"The big drop in traffic after September has just made the problem more dangerous," said Steven P. Erie, a professor of urban planning at the University of California at San Diego. "It lulls us into a sense of complacency, a feeling that we won't have to deal with this for another 5 or 10 years. And that just isn't true."
He added: "The problem is air traffic is going to come back. This is a real crisis and it won't go away that easily."
The Southern California Association of Governments, a regional planning body, has said that long-term travel projections should remain largely the same, despite the decline after Sept. 11.
The Los Angeles airport underwent its last major expansion in 1984, for the Olympics. Its capacity then was 40 million passengers a year. In 2001 it handled an estimated 62 million passengers. Under the mayor's plan, it is intended to handle 78 million passengers in 2025.
Even that goal will involve a step- by-step tearing down and rebuilding of most of the terminals. In addition, because the airport is one of the country's most dangerous as measured by near-misses by planes, runways will have to be reconfigured.
Los Angeles' previous mayor, Richard J. Riordan, had proposed expanding LAX to handle nearly 100 million passengers a year. But in the face of local opposition he stopped pressing the issue. In October, Mayor Hahn officially announced that his focus would be on security rather than expansion.
The real growth in regional capacity is expected to come at Ontario and El Toro, under the mayor's proposal. Ontario's current traffic of about 6 million passengers a year is expected to grow to 30 million a year by 2025. El Toro would also be built to handle 30 million passengers a year.
The benefit, proponents say, is that it would move the airport capacity closer to places where the population is shifting, particularly the Inland Empire.
Airline executives dismiss this notion as fanciful. They argue that travelers prefer large hubs because they offer more flights and more airlines.
"At the end of the day, people fly where they want to fly," said Michael Whitaker, a vice president for governmental affairs at United Airlines, the biggest carrier at Los Angeles. If the airport congestion in Los Angeles gets worse and routes get pushed to the more remote airports, he added, many flyers will go to San Francisco, Phoenix or even Denver.
Many here hope that the El Toro vote in March will settle the issue. But there are already signs that the planning headaches may not end then. Opponents of that airport have vowed to fight in the courts as long as it takes to kill it.
"If the vote fails?" asked Larry Agran, the mayor of Irvine and one of the staunchest opponents of El Toro. "I think we'd be in trench warfare for another 20 years."
What do you think? I think that LAX should be expanded, I have seen copies of the 5 draft masterplans for LAX (in a magazine!) & think that the addition of a new runway & terminals/roadways to the West would be a great start. Not that this is probably what will happen, however the city planners need to understand that most pax prefer LAX it would seem!
Cheers - BZF
Ansett Australia - (was) One of the worlds great airlines!