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Jet Lag in Pollution Control

Increased Emissions From the Growing Number of Airliners at LAX Are Negating Efforts to Clear the Skies Despite Stringent Guidelines on Industries and Vehicles.

March 18, 1997|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

On some days, the runways and roads at Los Angeles International Airport are clogged with traffic worse than any freeway. Jets idle, spewing fumes into the air as they await clearance for takeoff. Shuttles and buses sit in front of terminals, trying to maneuver around passengers unloading cars with their engines running.

And if city officials fulfill their promise to expand the airport with new gates and runways, 85 million to 90 million travelers a year--as many as 60% more than today--would be descending on LAX by 2015. The 700,000 takeoffs and landings a year would rise to 1 million.

Today, LAX--the world's third-busiest passenger airport--is one of the largest sources of smog in Los Angeles.

Run a finger across the hood of a car parked there and you get a glimpse of some of what you're breathing--a brew of fine particles, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides created by planes, shuttles, ground equipment and passenger cars.

And at the LAX of the future, the South Coast Air Quality Management District predicts the pollution will get worse--by as much as 50% in 2010--largely due to increased emissions from a growing number of jets and other aircraft.

Airport managers already have taken aggressive steps to reduce LAX's contribution to smog by switching many parking lot shuttles and other vehicles to cleaner-burning natural gas and by equipping all aircraft gates with centralized electricity. But AQMD officials say that cannot compensate for the fumes from airliners. A single wide-body jet, especially older DC-10s and 747s, can spit out 100 pounds of smog-forming gases on each landing and takeoff.

Controlling the large--and growing--role of airports is becoming one of the thorniest air pollution problems that the Los Angeles region faces.

In an analysis completed last summer, a major environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, found airports to be one of the nation's largest--and often forgotten--sources of air pollution. The group criticized the federal government for leaving airliners and ground equipment virtually unregulated.

Aircraft at U.S. airports released 350 million pounds of smog-forming pollutants during landings and takeoffs in 1993, more than twice the amount in 1970, and they "emit more and more . . . with each passing year," the group said in its report, "Flying Off Course."

At Los Angeles International, aircraft and airport shuttles and other ground equipment are responsible for about 31 tons of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides daily--or 22 million pounds per year, according to 1993 AQMD data. The two pollutants react in sunlight to form ozone, the main component of smog.

In comparison, the airport's contribution to smog is just slightly less than the volume that comes from the area's 14 oil refineries, the largest industrial source of air pollution in the Los Angeles region.

In its smog plan adopted last October, the AQMD set a target of reducing LAX emissions by 30% between 1993 and 2010. But that goal already looks unachievable because of a lack of guarantees that aircraft engines will be equipped with technologies that control smog, said AQMD planning manager Henry Hogo.

While virtually every other vehicle, factory and other source has been subject to pollution limits, aircraft remain one of the few sources of smog left in the Los Angeles area that has not faced stringent regulations.

But localities and states are powerless in what they can do, since engine standards come under the jurisdiction of a global coalition of governments. Except for the United States and Russia, every nation in the International Civil Aviation Organization has endorsed cutting emissions from new aircraft engines by 16%. The Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. airlines oppose the idea, saying it could raise aircraft costs and lower fuel efficiency.

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In 1995, American Airlines voluntarily offered to bring only its cleanest-burning planes to the Los Angeles region. But other airlines balked, saying it created a scheduling nightmare. Reluctant to go on its own, American discarded the plan.

Because the FAA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are at odds, there remains "little hope" of agreement on aircraft engines in the near future, Hogo said.

As a result, achieving healthful air in the Los Angeles Basin is more difficult. Not having controls on aircraft, AQMD and state officials say, unfairly shifts more of the burden to factories, trucks and other sources.

"It's important to get those emission reductions [from aircraft] because they contribute to the overall problem," Hogo said. In a little more than a decade, the region's five major airports will emit almost as much nitrogen oxides as the 300 largest industrial sources combined, he said.

Airliners cause about half of the 31 tons of emissions daily at LAX, mostly when they idle on runways, while vehicles stationed at the airport--such as parking lot shuttles, vans from rental car firms and taxis--are responsible for most of the rest, the AQMD data show.

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