Opponents of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) expansion say a proposed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) study of safety on the Northern Runway Complex at LAX was subverted by a vote of six to one by the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners to include new, larger airplane capacity questions in the study.
A number of elected officials sent Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a letter expressing their surprise at the decision and asked him to intercede.
The independent NASA study had been advocated by 11th District Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and voted for unanimously by NORSAC (North Runway Safety Advisory Committee), which expressed its faith in NASA producing an unbiased study on the safety issues. Los Angeles City Council had unanimously approved the study earlier.
On August 23rd, a letter to Villaraigosa from Congresswoman Jane Harman, County Supervisor Don Knabe and Rosendahl stated that they had met with outgoing FAA administrator Marion Blakey to discuss the northern runway issue, and stated, “We know that she [Blakey] is scheduled to meet with you today on the same subject.”
The letter further stated that “The airport’s newly configured southern runways can now handle simultaneous landings of two Group V aircraft (such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner) or a single Group VI aircraft like the Airbus A380, and the north runway, even in its current configuration, can accommodate a single Boeing Dreamliner or a single Airbus 380.”
Harman, Knabe and Rosendahl said they “were surprised by Monday’s Board of Airport Commissioners action, which expanded the focus of the NASA study beyond the issue of safety.”
“Instead of a true safety study that evaluates various alternatives, BOAC’s [Board of Airport Commissioners’] revised scope muddies this objective. We ask that you instruct your airport commission to restore the study’s original scope as recommended by the North Airfield Safety Advisory Committee and to make sure its results are incorporated into the EIR [environmental impact report].
“If the NASA study does not focus on the objectives recommended by the committee, it will have no credibility. We urge you to apply your considerable political and personal skills to forging a path forward that truly enhances safety and security at LAX, fosters a regional airport build-out to share the benefits and burdens of growth with other airports, and respects your commitment to the communities most affected.”
Villaraigosa has not personally addressed these questions publicly, as some in the community have repeatedly asked him to do, recalling his fervor against airport expansion during his mayoral campaign.
But Matt Szabo, an aide to the mayor, said, “The mayor remains opposed to moving the northern runway, unless called to do so by definitive evidence that it is necessary to protect the safety of the passengers.”
Denny Schneider, Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion (ARSAC) president, said the five airport commissioners who voted to include the larger aircraft were concerned with capacity enhancement and commerce over safety.
The one airport commissioner who voted against including larger airplane capacity questions in the study was Val Velasco, who said there are many other options to make the northern runway safer than moving it 300 feet or more to the north.
Velasco is a resident of Playa del Rey, the former president of ARSAC, and an estate planning attorney.
A July 17th letter to Villaraigosa from Congresswomen Maxine Waters (35th District) and Harman (36th District), Los Angeles County Supervisors Knabe (Fourth District) and Yvonne B. Burke (Second District) and Rosendahl asked the mayor to “exert his leadership to prevent the LAX Master Plan from becoming a blueprint for community outrage, litigation and unnecessary delay of the moderniza- tion we all support.”
Blakey attended a luncheon sponsored by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and she met with the mayor earlier.
At the luncheon, she had said she wouldn’t tell officials what to do, but then told them to “Get the north airfield project done.”
Blakey said the northern runway was “an issue of safety and efficiency and economic competitiveness.”
Blakey’s comments have little authority at this point, since she is weeks away from leaving her FAA administrator position and assuming an appointment as president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents the nation’s leading manufacturers of civil, military and business aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, space systems, engines, missiles, materiel and re- lated components, equipment, services and information technology, according to the organization’s Web site.
Schneider said Blakey’s comments were “a call for action to expand LAX.”
“We’re vehemently opposed to that, and I wish she would have called for regionalization instead,” said Schneider. “I don’t agree with motivating business people to push for something they don’t understand yet.”
The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce had sent its own letter to Congresswoman Waters on July 3rd, asking her to “reconsider her legislation regarding H.R. [House of Representatives Bill] 2872” — the LAX Community Safety Act that would prevent the northernmost runway at LAX from being relocated further north. The bill was introduced June 26th in Congress.
The letter claimed Waters’ legislation “could end up contradicting the desires of those you are trying to protect,” and stated, “This legislation, which we recognize is targeted to protect a small portion of your constituents, could result in a significant detriment to local safety concerns and the region’s economy.
“Our primary objective is to find a solution that serves the region in terms of ensuring the jobs and economic benefits associated with our airports while protecting safety and quality of life for local communities.”
Rosendahl and Schneider say that if the northern runway complex is unsafe, the FAA should close it down or have only one runway.
When safety concerns were cited about the South Airfield Complex, airport officials spent almost two years and a significant amount of money to study the safety issue, but they have not done the same with the north runway complex, leading residents to believe that the true motivation is not a safety concern but an economic one that requires moving the runway.
Airport officials have said that they are concerned about runway incursions, and an incursion on the northern runway August 16th was determined to be both pilot and controller error.
The majority of runway incursions — 80 percent — had taken place on the southern runways, and FAA officials had already stated unequivocally that it “considers LAX safe to use today” (after the recent reconfiguration of the southern runways), said Schneider.
During the period when the southern runway was closed and construction was ongoing to move the southernmost runway 55 feet south, takeoffs and landings were primarily on the northern runways.
While the southern runways are open, one of the runways is closed for 52 hours starting at 2 a.m. each Saturday for construction of a center taxiway, and at least two of the taxiways are closed and will not reopen for over a year, according to information on the Los Angeles World Airports Web site.
This still puts pressure on the northern runways for departures and landings, and contributes to the incidence of runway incursions, which have been due to human error on the part of both the pilot and the controller.
On the issue of runway incursions, Mark V. Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spoke at the NTSB Runway Incursion Forum on “Promoting Runway Safety” in Washington, D.C. on March 27th.
“Prevention of runway incursions has been on the board’s list of ‘Most Wanted Transportation Improvements’ since the list was inaugurated in 1990,” Rosenker said. “What our investigations have revealed is that the FAA’s current solution, AMASS [Airport Movement Area Safety System], does not prevent an incursion or accident in all situations.
“It takes too long to reach the pilot. The recommendation currently on the Most Wanted list asks the FAA to require, at all airports with scheduled passenger service, a ground movement safety system that will prevent runway incursions.
“The system should provide a direct warning capability to flight crews, and (in addition), demonstrated through computer simulations or other means that the system will prevent incursions.
“We need a direct warning to the cockpit. We do not specify a technology or system; we just want something that goes directly to the cockpit.
“We believe this most recent accommodation, when implemented, will be a major factor in reducing and hopefully eliminating runway accidents.”
Rosenker’s statements bolster the calls for other safety measures that Rosendahl, Schneider and others have asked for repeatedly with the installation of runway status lights and other relatively inexpensive fixes that aren’t yet in place, according to Rosendahl.
Other airfield improvements that the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion recommended include:
ï “reducing air traffic and time bunching to allow recovery from human error to avoid incidents and reduce “go-arounds”;
ï “more complete control tower staffing (controller’s union has called for more staff and fewer hours);
ï “an in-cockpit voice warning system;
ï “runway status lights and other collision avoidance systems;
ï “better air traffic control system equipment;
ï “better taxiway and runway signage”; and
ï “increased spacing between flight operations.”
Improvements at three other newer and larger airports with parallel runways with center taxiways — the same design that airport officials are trying to design at LAX — have a higher incursion rate than LAX without those modifications, said Edgar Saenz, LAX field representative for Congresswoman Waters.
Officials at Airbus, manufacturer of the A380, had told Schneider that they don’t require the northern runway to be moved, saying it is more of a “gate” issue, and that they can land on a shorter, narrower runway, with the sides of the runway hardened to handle the weight and the “backwash” issue of soil sending up plumes of dust.
Rosendahl has stated that taking care of the obvious safety fixes should be the first priority, rather than rushing to spend millions to move the runway before addressing immediate, easier solutions.
Information on ARSAC, www.regionalsolution.org/.
LAX construction information, noise complaints online information at www.laxmasterplan.org/.