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The Congressman Who Has It In for Los Angeles : Enter the weird national politics of local airports : THE NEW MAYOR AND THE CHALLENGE

July 11, 1993

After months of inaction, new breezes are blowing over Los Angeles International Airport. But the fresh air could stall if Mayor Richard Riordan does not keep a close watch on the city's interests in Washington.

Six months after the airport's 40-year-old landing-fee agreement expired, and in the face of solid opposition from commercial airlines, the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners last month finally adopted a new budget and fee structure that will mean significantly higher landing fees for airlines. Under the old landing-fee agreement, adopted when LAX was a new and uncertain financial venture for the city, airlines have paid about 52 cents per 1,000 pounds of landed weight. That rate was tied to the sale of airport concessions; when food and beverage sales rose, for example, landing fees dropped.

Four decades after this arrangement was drafted, LAX is a bustling, world-class airport charging landing fees now among the lowest of any major U.S. airport. Under the airport commission's new plan, landing fees rise to $1.56 per 1,000 pounds, much closer to rates charged at other major U.S. airports. The commission also wisely junked the old budgeting scheme linking concession sales to landing fees and substituted a "cost-of-service calculation" that bases landing fees on the actual costs of operating the airport.

The airlines have, understandably, opposed the imposition of higher landing fees not just in Los Angeles but in other cities as well. They argue that LAX's new fees, embedded in the airport's new budget structure, are unreasonable because the airlines should not be helping to generate surplus airport revenues in order to fund non-airport city services. They managed to tie up a new fee structure for six months, but their first payments based on the new $1.56 landing fees are due in August.

NEW REVENUES: The aim in adopting the new, higher landing fees is to provide the fiscally strapped city with new revenue for such vital services as police and fire. Indeed, the new fees could generate an additional $30 million yearly for Los Angeles, if the city is allowed to use that money. Trouble is, that's a huge if . Voters began the process of dismantling the many legal obstacles to the city's use of airport funds with the passage of Proposition K last November. This charter amendment permits the city to use surplus airport funds for general fund purposes. But high hurdles remain. Federal airport grants and bonds also proscribe the use of airport fees for city general-fund purposes without a congressional waiver or permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. Riordan must make these waivers a top priority.

NEW HURDLES: But the more immediate threat comes from a Michigan congressman. Rep. Bob Carr has amended the pending transportation appropriations bill to withhold federal transportation improvement funds from "any municipal or local government" that seeks to divert any airport revenue from its airport. At stake is $160 million for continued Metro Rail construction here. The Michigan Democrat's amendment seems curiously targeted at Los Angeles, since it is one of few large cities with a major national or international airport that hasn't already found some way to circumvent the federal proscriptions on using its airport funds. New York, Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, San Francisco and major Hawaiian cities all have gained legal access to their airports' surplus profits through a number of creative avenues that were subsequently closed to other cities. In light of this, Carr's amendment is patently unfair and raises questions about why a Midwestern congressman is picking on Los Angeles.

Mayor Riordan has made clear his desire to lease LAX to a private operator in order to generate new revenue for police and fire services. The Times, along with many experts, strongly prefers that the management of this uniquely valuable city facility remain firmly in public hands, so that--under the modernization of airport management effected by the commission--it might generate new profits for city services. But the same federal roadblocks remain, regardless of the path taken.

Riordan must quickly mobilize California's congressional delegation to block Carr's amendment, which goes to the House floor for a vote later this month. Then he must pursue waivers of federal grant and bond restrictions. At that point, the city can seriously debate the merits of public or private airport management.

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