The Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport is seen by many at the airport as the centerpiece in its modernization plans.

The $1.5 billion remodeling effort of the terminal was designed, airport officials say, to make travel easier for the millions of passengers that travel through the nation’s sixth largest airport annually.

But the local chapter president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association believes that a proposed tower at the terminal, named after Los Angeles’ first African American mayor, could become a visual hazard for the men and women who direct aircraft at the airport.

The union’s concerns have prompted City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, the chair of the council’s Trade, Commerce and Transportation Committee, to ask Los Angeles World Airports to report to the committee on any “efforts made and also underway to consider all airfield safety implications of the Tom Bradley International Terminal improvement projects and mitigate any potential safety concerns.”

Michael Foote, the union president, told The Argonaut that the membership has convened a panel of safety experts to evaluate any potential sight hazards that the proposed terminal tower could pose for air traffic controllers. The project, which is planned for the west side of the terminal area, could have a roof line between 5 and 9 stories high.

“Our panel will analyze the safety risks and then look at ways to mitigate them,” Foote said.

The union president’s comments were much more circumspect than earlier statements made to other news outlets. “The backside of the terminal will have a bunch of new gates. We won’t be able to see any of them. It is the same for the ramps and taxiways,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the terminal “the first and last impression 10 million travelers have of Los Angeles” every year. “This renovation project improves the travelers’ experience as they pass through LAX, while enhancing passenger safety by reducing congestion in the airline check-in lobbies and on the curbside,” Villaraigosa said in May.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not oppose the planned construction of the terminal tower. In a letter to LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsay, FAA Regional Administrator William Withycombe expressed his agency’s thoughts on how the federal government could mitigate any potential safety hazards.

“Our Jan. 7, 2010 Final Airspace Determination stated that the FAA had no objections to building the terminal improvements as presented in the Los Angeles World Airports Notice of Proposed Construction. We recognize that the improvements will create an impact to some of the existing airport surveillance equipment and will obstruct the line of sight between the airport traffic control tower and the cross taxi lanes,” Withycombe acknowledged.

The FAA administrator stated he believes that the use of Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model X (ASDE-X), a traffic management system for the airport surface that provides seamless coverage and aircraft identification to air traffic controllers, along with additional cameras, can alleviate any visual obstructions that air traffic controllers might encounter. He also said the agency plans to enlist its own experts on how the project might impact the airport.

“As we look forward to the completion of the project, the FAA will develop air traffic procedures designed to maximize the resulting improvements. This includes a panel of subject matter experts that will review procedures developed for transitions to and from movement and non-movement areas associated with the terminal project and the new midfield taxiway,” the letter continues. “This panel will ensure those operational procedures meet the world class standards of safety stakeholders to participate on the panel of experts.”

Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX, said it was premature to conclude that the terminal could pose a safety risk.

“I think it’s too early to call this a safety issue,” he said.

The councilman agreed with Foote on one point: that there are far too few controllers for the airport. The union has maintained this position for several years and its representatives say that is a primary factor in runway incursions at LAX, which are defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization as an incident at an airport that adversely affects runway safety.

While he sympathizes with the union, Rosendahl said that the terminal has to be viewed through a more contemporary prism.

“It needs to be understood within the context of the technology within the rest of the world that is being implemented at airports,” he explained. “In many places throughout the world, (many air traffic controllers) can’t see parts of the airport either, but there are ways to mitigate that.”

Withycombe invited airport officials to take part in the panel discussions that the agency plans to hold, as well as residents and legislators.

“We affirm that the FAA has no objection to you proceeding with your plans to construct the Tom Bradley International Terminal improvements,” the FAA regional administrator reiterated.

In his council motion, Rosendahl lists proposals that could alleviate the line of sight concern. They include a “mini-tower” at the terminal, taxiway work-arounds and introducing laser-guided systems that are in use at other airports. They also include some of the FAA’s mitigation suggestions, the ASDE-X system, as well as an enhanced airfield camera system.

“The City Council has been and continues to be a champion for modernizing LAX,” the motion states. “The new Tom Bradley Terminal is expected to help leapfrog its peer airports around the globe in terms of equality of passenger service and availability of new technologies.

“As our region’s principal economic driver, it is critical that we continue our efforts to improve our airport quickly, but also do so safely.”

Rosendahl said that he would listen carefully to the union’s concerns, but he repeated that it was too early to determine if the tower was a safety hazard for the air traffic controllers. “Mike Foote is very important in this process and I welcome his input,” Rosendahl said. “My hope is that (the terminal) isn’t a safety risk, but if it is we’ll deal with it.”

Nancy Castles, a LAWA spokeswoman, said airport officials will have their presentation prepared when Rosendahl’s committee notifies them of a specific date.

“We will be ready when the committee chair agendizes the line of sight item,” Castles told The Argonaut.

Rosendahl is uncertain when LAWA officials will be called before his committee but promised that it would be “in the near future.”

Foote said his experts are expected to have their report completed by early next year.