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Plan to Hike Security at LAX Faulted

Rand says costly project backed by Hahn would increase vulnerability, not lessen it. Mayor's office disputes findings.

May 15, 2003|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

A $9.6-billion modernization plan billed by Mayor James K. Hahn as a way to make Los Angeles International Airport more secure would in fact make passengers and airport personnel more vulnerable to terrorist attacks with small luggage bombs, shoulder-fired missiles or chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, according to the first independent analysis of the proposal.

By consolidating passengers and vehicles at a check-in center nearly a mile from the facility, the mayor's plan could greatly increase the number of casualties if such an attack occurred, according to a study by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research institute based in Santa Monica.

The eight-page study, commissioned by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) and completed by Rand at no charge, cited numerous security concerns with key elements of the mayor's plan. Hahn has been trying to sell his proposal to airlines and residents as a way to make the world's fifth-busiest airport less attractive for terrorists.

The mayor's office reacted to the report with anger, saying that Rand relied on a news release, a schematic and a fact sheet downloaded from the city airport agency's Web site to complete its analysis.

"The mayor's very disappointed that Congresswoman Harman would order up a premature analysis based on preliminary information," Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards said. "This analysis doesn't have the benefit of more than 8,000 pages of technical analysis that will be issued at the beginning of the summer."

The report raises the question of whether airports can be redesigned to deter a terrorist attack or to minimize casualties if one occurs. Though many of today's facilities incorporate shatterproof glass and steel-reinforced concrete to lessen damage and casualties in a blast, none of the nation's airports has been redesigned after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"You don't want to focus a lot of time and resources on the layout and the configuration because those elements are relatively inflexible," said Jack Riley, director of Rand's Public Safety and Justice Program. "Anything that's dependent on design or configuration could be overtaken by events as terrorists change their tactics."

Alternatives to Redesign

In fact, a wholesale redesign of the airport is unnecessary to do a better job of protecting travelers, the report says, adding that this could be accomplished by dispersing crowds at ticket counters, security checkpoints and baggage kiosks that currently present a highly visible target.

A central tenet of the mayor's plan -- capping the airport at 78 million passengers a year -- could improve security by moving travelers to other regional airports, Rand said. But this proposal is far from a sure thing because the number of passengers can't legally be limited and the airlines decide where to schedule flights.

Hahn released his airport modernization proposal last summer after scrapping a politically unpopular expansion plan favored by former Mayor Richard Riordan. Hahn has paid consultants $22.6 million to assemble his proposal, known as "Alternative D," and to draft environmental studies. The studies are scheduled to be released this summer.

The mayor's plan would involve a dramatic reworking of the 75-year-old airport by demolishing Terminals 1, 2 and 3 and replacing parking structures with a new terminal complex. The proposal would reroute private vehicles from the airport's horseshoe-shaped roadway to the check-in facility at nearby Manchester Square.

A people mover would shuttle travelers between a transportation center near Aviation Boulevard and the Century Freeway to the check-in center, area hotels and a consolidated rental car facility.

The new layout could present a security risk by making it difficult to evacuate the central terminal complex quickly, the study found. In addition, it said, the shuttle system might entice terrorists to try to disable it "at any point along its two-mile route and attack trapped passengers with weapons ranging from Molotov cocktails to biological weapons."

By dispersing airport operations among numerous new facilities, the mayor's plan also would increase the area that needs to be patrolled, the report said, adding that this would be difficult to do with the current number of personnel.

The mayor's plan isn't designed to adequately address historic risks that terrorists present to airports, Rand found. Car bomb attacks are not as likely at these facilities as small bombs hidden in luggage, it added.

A key reason Hahn gives for building the check-in facility away from the airport is to protect travelers from a car bomb.

Large delivery trucks ferrying supplies to about 200 restaurants, bookstores and other businesses at the airport would still be allowed to traverse the access road and could carry a bomb close to the terminals, the report found.

Instead of building a new facility, Rand provided several ideas for making the existing facility more secure.

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