When LAX agreed to abandon its incursions into Westchester, it won the right to increase flight traffic without limit

By Charles Rappleye

An A380 cuts the ribbon for LAX’s 2013 grand opening of its Villaraigosa Concourse at the Tom Bradley Terminal. Photo by Ted Soqui

I see that some of the communities around LAX are again talking about court action.

Not that they ever dropped the ongoing litigation against airport expansion — Culver City has been suing the airport for years, as if that’s the only way to talk to what may be the region’s most important public agency. And they’re still in court, demanding new limits and compensation for airport noise.

But the biggest lawsuit against LAX, the one that tied up its expansion plans and forced the agency into compromise with its neighbors, was settled this summer. In return for neighborhood comity, the airport agreed to abandon plans to push incrementally into Westchester.

That was good enough for airport critics exhausted by years of wrangling with the Westside behemoth.

“The airport and the surrounding neighborhoods have been at war for decades,” said City Councilman Mike Bonin, announcing the deal in August. “Today there is peace.”

“Instead of total animosity, now we’re on the same page,” echoed Denny Schneider of ARSAC, the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, in a phone interview.

All very reassuring in this time of strife, but if you think it sounds too good to be true, you’re right.

Yes, the settlement heads off the northward runway-creep that was threatening Westchester. But it does nothing to limit future expansion of what is already the nation’s second-busiest airport. In fact, it stripped out the only clause limiting future growth in the number of passengers using LAX.

A court order that was sidelined by the settlement set strict limits on the number of gates — and thus the number of passengers — that LAX could deploy.  Now those limits are off, and the airport is moving ahead with a multimillion-dollar renovation. Officials there offer no firm projections for growth, but the neutral Southern California Association of Governments recently projected total volume of 100 million passengers in 2040 — up from 75 million today. Nor is that a wildly high estimate; 10 years ago, SCAG expected upward of 170 million.

The point is that the airport is growing. Sure, work is underway on people-movers and a new car-rental center, but that doesn’t change the fact that more flights will mean more congestion, more noise, and more pollution for all of the Westside and, in the case of dirty air, for all the residents of the L.A. basin.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The alternative to a larger airport by the beach is to build up other airports in the region so that all the traffic isn’t concentrated at LAX. In fact, that was the whole point of ARSAC: the group was advocating a “Regional Solution.”

And there are obvious candidates for carrying some of the LAX load. One is Ontario Airport, which LAX treated like a hick country cousin until Ontario sued to regain control of its facility.

Even better would be to erect a new facility in Palmdale, home to a military air base and plenty of space to land international flights and the big jumbo-jets that already find the tarmac at LAX too constricting. I’ve long thought that with a genuine public commitment, Palmdale could be the perfect solution.

How would that work? Well, there’s an airfield up there already, with plenty of room to build out. As to transit, tunnel through the mountains from the Antelope Valley to downtown L.A. and travelers could deliver passengers to Union Station half an hour after landing. That’s faster than the city-operated Flyaway bus takes to get there now from LAX. Sure, people would have to drive downtown to pick up friends and family, but that would take a lot of pressure off the 405.

Certainly, it’s feasible. Heck, the airport could share the tunnel with the bullet train, which is contemplating the same route.

It’s such a good idea it’s not even mine. As far back as 1968 a Palmdale International Airport was being called inevitable. The idea gained currency again just over ten years ago, when then-Mayor James Hahn was pushing an $11-billion airport expansion plan. At that point several Valley lawmakers, including Richard Alarcon and Supervisor Michael Antonovich, saw Palmdale as an alternative. Former mayor Richard Riordan chimed in to tout the train tunnel.

It was a good idea, but it never became more than that. The managers at LAX saw regionalization as a threat to their dominance, and they resisted any effort to develop new airfields. This sort of thinking was apparent in their actions, but was confirmed in emails that surfaced in the Ontario v. LAX litigation.

What stung city officials in Ontario was a reference in an email dismissing the concerns of the “inbred Inland Empire.” But more damning in policy terms was the frank confession in a 2010 email by Gina Marie Lindsey, then airport executive director, that the ostensible agreement to develop regional alternative airports was just a ruse, a “politically driven mantra to appease LAX neighbors.”

Now, six years later, so it appears to have been. Whether through knavery, bureaucratic empire-building or simple inertia, LAX has driven all viable alternatives from the field. Today the airport appears destined for unlimited, unfettered growth.

Got a problem with that? Tell it to the judge!

Charles Rappleye, winner of the 2007 George Washington Book Prize, recently published “Herbert Hoover in the White House,” his fourth historical biography.