Regardless of the holidays, it’s an unusually busy time to be the head of the department overseeing Los Angeles International Airport.
From her office overlooking LAX, Gina Marie Lindsey, the executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, acknowledges that there’s no shortage of transformative projects in the works to prepare the nation’s third busiest airport for the future. In addition to LAX, which sees an average of 61 million travelers a year, Lindsey’s department is in charge of operations at Ontario International and Van Nuys general aviation airports, as well as aviation-related property in Palmdale.
Chief among the significant projects taking place at LAX is the major overhaul of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, the largest public works project in Los Angeles history with costs estimated at nearly $1.5 billion. Officials recently announced an agreement with Westfield Group to bring more than 60 premier dining and luxury retail shops to the future terminal.
The development of the new international facility is part of an overall modernization effort at LAX to renovate aging terminals and facilities and accommodate larger aircraft. The airport has released the Specific Plan Amendment Study, which proposes several alternatives for reconfiguring the north airfield to better handle airplanes like the A-380.
Options that call for moving the northernmost runway closer toward Westchester and Playa del Rey have drawn the ire of residents who have fought for years against encroachment. While airport staff favor the proposal that moves the runway 260 feet north, Lindsey stresses that officials are hoping to strike a balance between the airport’s interests and those of the neighbors.
She is also affirming the airport department’s support for finally bringing light rail onto airport property, as LAWA has committed to provide land west of Sepulveda Boulevard on the east end of the Central Terminal Area for an on-airport Metro light rail station.
Lindsey, who has over 16 years of experience in airport management, has served as LAWA executive director since 2007. She recently sat down with The Argonaut to discuss the magnitude of construction going on, her thoughts on the projects’ significance and to clarify LAWA’s position on having light rail and moving the north runway.
What is currently LAWA’s main focus at LAX?
It’s a major rebuilding of both the business and operational capabilities as well as the physical plant. The business and operational rebuilding effort is more invisible to the public, but it’s critically important that we ensure the physical facilities are rehabilitated or built new.
Do you feel the Tom Bradley International Terminal modernization is the most significant project happening now?
Yes, I do. First of all, it’s a beautiful building so it is symbolically important not only to the airport community but the neighboring communities. This airport can look a lot better than it has and this is tangible evidence of being able to build a beautiful structure.
Now, with aircraft that can fly basically anywhere anytime, Los Angeles can’t be complacent about the fact that it’s the second busiest international gateway in the United States. We are second only to JFK (International in New York) but there are new terminals and facilities in Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco and Denver, so it’s about time that we in Los Angeles provided the kinds of welcoming front-door facilities for international passengers that much of the rest of the world is providing.
How is the Bradley project coming along and what is the latest about the planned opening?
There are three phases of the opening. One was a very small achievement, which was to open the most northerly gate (134) and to have some operations there. The second opening will be the opening of the west gates, all along the west side, and the central core where all of the concessions and retail and first-class lounges are, and that will happen sometime in the middle of next year.
Once that happens, then we have to do the construction that will connect the new building to the old building and do a lot of work in the old building to move the security screening checkpoints and consolidate them on the mezzanine. That work will not be finished until the beginning of 2014.
How do you feel that airport officials are making LAX a more welcoming facility for international passengers and attractive gateway to the city?
First of all, the building program is huge. We can’t put our best face forward to the arriving passenger without providing much more modernized, beautiful facilities with a very cutting edge commercial program – you have to have better restaurants, better retail opportunities, and we’re doing all of that. We’re spending over $3 million a day because there’s that much work going on here, and you always have to balance the amount of construction going on with the fact that you still have to operate the airport.
There have been unacceptably long wait times for people to get through customs and immigration. We have certainly had complaints about security checkpoints and long lines waiting to get through the security checkpoints so it’s really vital that we have a strong collaborative partnership with federal agencies that have a material influence in delivering the overall airport experience for the customers.
We have a very collaborative relationship with CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) but we have a shared problem, and that is they need to find a way and we need to help them, meet the customer demand at a level of service that’s acceptable for what Los Angeles wants to provide.
LAX has been considered a top terrorist target on the West Coast. How would you say that security has improved at the airport and what is the current status of security?
It’s excellent. We are always on a quest to be better than the day before. We do not in any way become complacent about, ‘OK we’re really good, we’ve got it handled;’ we’re always leaning into what can we do better. We have a very robust commitment to security; we have over twice as many law enforcement officers as any other airport of our category. We have very strong connections with the other agencies that work counterterrorism, so that multijurisdictional partnership is one of our major strengths.
What is the position of LAWA on moving the north runway in the Specific Plan Amendment Study and how are you trying to address the concerns of neighbors?
It is always a difficult balance to strike when you’re operating a complicated industrial complex, basically. This is an enterprise and you always have close-in neighbors – we’re not Denver – so balancing the interests of what is a regional asset, which is the airport, and balancing those interests with the close-in neighbors is always a difficult line to walk. But it’s one that we have to walk.
Both of our airfields are pretty old and configured for smaller aircraft so the issue is how do we best prepare LAX to meet today and tomorrow’s transportation demand and balance the interests of the community.
We think the preferred alternative that we put forth does exactly that. It’s the combination of Alternatives 1 and 9 – marrying the airside alternative with the landside alternative. It does move the northerly runway 260 feet closer to the neighborhood; we own all of the property and there’s a very significant buffer that would remain on the north side. The inboard (takeoff) runway is not moving, only the landing runway is moving, and from a noise standpoint, that doesn’t have a significant noise change on the north side. We think this provides the best balance; when it’s built it will allow for standardized operations for 99 percent of the operations, 99 percent of the time.
How are you taking into account the elected officials’ concerns?
We talk a lot. It’s the only way that I can think of that we can try to maximize mutual understanding. That’s really what I’m after; I want folks to understand what the airport’s interests are and I want to understand what their interests are, and the only way to do that is to have consistent communication. We really appreciate that both Councilman (Bill) Rosendahl and a lot of the community is very energized about protecting their interests – we agree, their interests do need to be protected, and we absolutely believe there’s a way to do both.
What is the position of LAWA on having light rail come to the airport and what are the steps you’re taking to move this forward?
I’m a big believer in transit connections with airports. What we are doing is acknowledging that the MTA is building a (Crenshaw Line) station at Aviation and Century and we will connect with that station – there will be a circulator. Beyond that we are also dedicating property in the intermodal transportation facility (at 96th and Lot C). What we’re saying is you can bring the Green Line, or any other line you want, right to the intermodal transportation facility (or an area near the administration tower), which really gets you right to the Central Terminal area.
We could not be more supportive of a very good, robust connection between light rail and the airport. I feel like that means that you should get it as close to the airport as you can. Airports more and more are going to become transfer centers for people’s lives, and the more modal connections that you can tap into at an airport the better.
We think we have got three opportunities to do that – dedicating the land both where the intermodal transportation facility is going to be, or at an area at the mouth of the Central Terminal Area, is a pretty strong commitment.
What’s been the position of LAWA in terms of approaching regionalization of the airports?
We’re completely in support of regionalization. The issue is how do you achieve it. In the recent past, we have tried to achieve that by providing wonderful facilities, for example at Ontario where there are two lovely terminals.
The reality is there have been some very tough economic times and the parallel reality of airlines changing their business model, so they no longer rely as much on secondary airports… they don’t fly as many seats nationwide as they used to. We’ve seen throughout the country that secondary airports, like Ontario, like Oakland, Manchester and Providence on the East Coast have all had major reductions in airline service.
Regionalization is a wonderful concept; it is not something that you legislate. Our intent as Los Angeles World Airports is to make LAX the best it can be and to make Ontario the best it can be.