The Specific Plan Amendment Study (SPAS) draft environmental impact report (DEIR) for Los Angeles International Airport was released July 27, to the apprehension of many Westchester and Playa del Rey residents concerned about plans to relocate the northern runway further into the residential and business areas.

Even after years of lawsuits, public meetings with local residents opposing movement of the northern runway further north, and a study finding no safety reason to reconfigure the north airfield, Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) officials are still citing safety concerns and potential incursions as a reason to possibly move the northernmost runway closer to the Westchester/Playa del Rey business and residential communities.

LAWA officials haven’t announced which of nine alternative proposals they prefer. One such option would move the runway 350 feet into Westchester/Playa. Other alternatives vary in the number of feet the runway would be relocated, with one proposing moving the runway to the south.

The SPAS involves the identification and evaluation of potential alternative designs, technologies and configurations for the LAX Master Plan Program that would provide solutions to the problems that so-called “yellow light projects” were designed to address.

The SPAS process also includes identification of potential amendments to the LAX Specific Plan that call for the modernization and improvement of LAX in a manner that is designed for a practical capacity of 78.9 million annual passengers while enhancing safety and security, minimizing environmental impacts on the surrounding communities, and creating conditions that encourage airlines to go to other airports in the region, particularly those owned and operated by LAWA.

At a November 2006 public meeting regarding the Specific Plan, Col. Dave Kurner, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety officer, explained that he analyzes incursion events, including the potential causes, and how to approach changes and educate airport management, pilots and air traffic controllers on how to make improvements.

Kurner said that “bigger, faster airplanes are coming to LAX, which has a 51-year-old design, and that improvements like moving the northern runway are commensurate with the ‘needed growth of LAX.’”

In March 2006, Bill Withycombe, who was the regional administrator of the Western-Pacific Region of the FAA, had testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Aviation Subcommittee on Airspace Redesign over Southern California, saying, “Roughly 80 percent of runway incursions at LAX occur on the south side of the airport.”

A reconfiguration of the South Airfield Complex included moving one of the south runways south by 55 feet, and the construction of a new parallel center taxiway between those runways. The reconfiguration was intended to allow for new larger aircraft, Design Group VI, such as the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747-800.

The irony is that the Southern Airfield Complex no longer met the FAA design criteria after this reconfiguration because the FAA had issued new standards in March 2007, just as the reconfiguration was about to be completed, increasing the distance required between the runway centerline and the taxiway centerline to accommodate the Design Group VI aircraft.

A coalition of business and labor leaders, known as the Coalition to Fix L.A. Now, has recently announced support for the separation of the northern runways at LAX due to efficiency and safety issues.

Comprised of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce – whose president and CEO, Gary Toebben, has long advocated for reconfiguration of the northern airfield – the group also includes the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, the Central City Association of Los Angeles, the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, and the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.

Business interests and construction jobs are at the forefront of this coalition. A press release by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce states, “Besides creating operational benefits, recent safety studies have concluded that separation of the north airfield will increase airfield safety by as much as 55 percent.”

The statement did not explain which study was being cited, since the NASA Ames Center and an academic panel had conducted the “Los Angeles International North Airfield Study” and found no safety reason to relocate the northern runway complex.

The panel members were Arnold Barnett (Massachusetts Institute of Technology – panel chair); Michael Ball (University of Maryland); George Donohue (George Mason University); Mark Hansen (University of California-Berkeley); Amedeo Odoni (MIT); and Antonio Trani (Virginia Polytechnic Institute).

After the NASA study was released, the FAA critiqued the study and administrator J. Randy Babbitt had sent a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, requesting that he and LAX officials have the north airfield reconfigured for “known safety risks, to improve the efficiency, and to meet the design standards on the LAX north airfield.”

In April 2010, the academic panel that conducted the study that had found no safety reason to relocate the northern runway, stated that after reviewing the FAA’s critique of the study, it saw no reason to amend its analysis.

In a letter to Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of LAWA, the academic panel responded to the FAA’s critique, and said it had reached its additional conclusions because “data analyses in the [FAA] critique that are said to contradict our findings also contradict the FAA’s own methods and findings related to runway safety. Incursion data and other evidence suggest that the existing north airfield at LAX is just as safe as the south airfield with its new center taxiway.”

Following the release of the draft EIR, the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion (ARSAC) recently reaffirmed its opposition to moving the northern runway, 24 Right, closer to the communities of Westchester/Playa del Rey.

“Moving Runway 24 Right closer to homes and businesses is unsafe, unnecessary, unacceptable and probably illegal under the Stipulated Settlement Agreement,” said Denny Schneider, president of ARSAC.

“Time is of the essence and we have only 72 days. It is difficult for the public to acquire and assimilate the details assumed by LAWA in their assessments of such a massive project. We are dissecting the over-6,000 page document because the devil is in the details. Even LAWA acknowledged in their summary that their plans can cause major disruptions. We are assembling teams to review each aspect. Everyone in the public who wants to help should contact ARSAC,” Schneider said.

Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the county Federation of Labor, along with Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce members and business leaders, is focusing on the available jobs that would come with runway reconfiguration and the other renovation projects. They are strongly urging elected officials to assist in the airport becoming a greater economic engine.

Schneider and other community members point out that fixing the infrastructure and terminals at LAX would provide twice as many jobs as the runway being moved north into the communities.

Schneider said that “everyone wants an airport to be proud of, but it doesn’t mean that LAX-adjacent communities have to be sacrificed for the greater good.” When the north runway was built in the late 1960s, thousands of Westchester/Playa del Rey residents lost their homes. In addition, many businesses were dislocated from the Westchester Central Business District along Sepulveda Boulevard, he said.

“It took more than 25 years for the business district to recover from the decimation of the community by LAX expansion,” Schneider said. “LAX officials promised then that future airport expansion would occur in Palmdale. LAX officials have reneged on their promises. We will hold them to their promises next time.

“Further, moving north will cause major expenses for the Los Angeles Departments of Water and Power, Sanitation, as well as CalTrans, and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation not covered by LAX. Is business ready for large rate hikes? Make a true network of airports around the region instead of sending all travelers into 405 (freeway) gridlock row,” Schneider noted.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose 11th District includes LAX, announced his support for most of the projects proposed as part of the Specific Plan Amendment Study.

But Rosendahl opposed what he called a controversial plan to move the LAX north runways as much as 350 feet closer to neighboring homes.

“The DEIR released today predicted an expansion of the noise contour over Westchester and Playa del Rey, resulting from the runway project.

“I support airport modernization, and most of the projects that are part of this plan, but I can’t support the proposal to extend the north runways,” the councilman said. “We’ve already demonstrated that we don’t need it for safety, and we don’t need it for operational efficiency.”

Rosendahl stated that “the 2010 North Runway Study conducted by NASA and an academic panel of experts found that the North Runway Complex is extremely safe, even at future fleet mix and traffic levels, and that the existing configuration would not unduly impact operational efficiency at LAX. The study was included in the SPAS report.”

The SPAS also included a number of projects to improve taxiways, ground transportation, and a consolidated rental care center at Manchester Square.

Rosendahl said the consolidated rental car center is a “no-brainer,” and combined with an automated people mover, the project would take rental car shuttles off the road, improve traffic, and provide a greater convenience to the traveling public.

The councilman said he is still reviewing the document, but expressed deep concern for traffic impacts associated with growth at LAX. The DEIR projected 39 significant and unavoidable impacts to traffic intersections in the region.

“At the very least, the results of this environmental study are a wake-up call for all Angelinos. It’s time to get serious about developing a regional plan for accommodating air traffic in Southern California. The LAX area alone cannot bear the full brunt of the growing demand,” said Rosendahl.

Schneider said, “We will vigorously fight efforts to move the runway to the north, especially when there are better alternatives available to increase safety, security and passenger convenience that would not require destroying homes and businesses in Westchester/Playa del Rey.

“Furthermore, any movement of the runway to the north will permanently alter flight patterns over Southern California, newly exposing millions of residents to aircraft noise, pollution and safety issues, who have not been impacted by LAX operations in the past. If necessary, we will go back to court to protect our communities and to force LAX to reconsider other runway configurations which do not move aircraft closer to Westchester/Playa del Rey.”

Under recommended improvements, the SPAS document states that the existing Runway Protection Zone (RPZ) associated with Runway 6/24R includes residential uses, and that improvements sought include the minimizing or elimination of the extent to which Runway Protection Zones (RPZ) overlay residential areas. The question becomes, how those overlays can be minimized or eliminated.

The SPAS objectives are listed numerically, No. 3 cited as maintaining LAX’s position as the “premier international gateway” in supporting and advancing the economic growth and vitality of the Los Angeles region – LAX serves a key role in the region’s economy, gateway for the western U.S., and major employer on a local and regional level.

Enhancing the safety and security at LAX comes in at #5; and #6 is “minimize environmental impacts on surrounding communities – add air quality study not done yet.

“LAX is a major international airport located within a very urbanized area, with established communities situated directly to the north, east and south. These communities are affected to varying degrees by existing operations at the airport,” states the Specific Plan study. “Recognizing that these existing effects to the surrounding communities may change based on the alternatives being considered in SPAS, LAWA seeks to identify and apply ways to avoid, reduce or minimize environmental impacts on surrounding communities.”

A complete description of each alternative, maps and full DEIR information are available online. The SPAS DEIR is available for public review at www.laxspas.org.

Comments from the public should be submitted by Oct. 10 to: spaseircomments@lawa.org. ¤