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Michael Hiltzik / GOLDEN STATE

Mayor Hahn's Plan for LAX Looks Like a Pain in the Valise

October 13, 2003|Michael Hiltzik

I may be in the minority on this, but I've never had a big problem with LAX.

As large international airports go, I've always found it works surprisingly well. The crowds may be large and the traffic congested, but as often as not, convenient parking is available, the lines move fairly snappily, the people seem friendly and the connections are first-rate. Compare that to the experience of landing at New York's JFK, which is like getting cast into the Land of Mordor.

So I'm not inclined to be terrifically enthusiastic about Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn's master plan for LAX, which will be the subject of public comment through the first week of November.

The proposal involves demolishing three terminals; tearing out all the terminal area parking ramps; consolidating almost all flight check-in and baggage services at a single location a mile and a half from the nearest gate; and installing a shuttle system that will force some arriving passengers to suffer through at least three transportation transfers before they reach their flight. It all looks like an enormous pain in the valise.

On the plus side, it will cost only $9 billion.

The mayor and Los Angeles World Airports, the managing body for LAX and three other regional airports, argue that the redesign is necessary to allow the airport to accommodate 78 million passengers a year by 2025, up from 57 million now. But the real driving force in the master plan -- dubbed "Alternative D" to distinguish it from "A," "B" and "C," which were proposals of the prior Riordan administration -- is the need to improve security, certainly an important issue in the post-9/11 world.

As it happens, that's the design aspect that has already come in for the most criticism. A report this summer by a group of Rand Corp. researchers questioned the wisdom of herding so many passengers in a single location, where they would present such a big, fat, soft target to a terrorist that one might as well paint a big bull's-eye on the new check-in building.

"We looked for things that reduce the density of crowds," K. Jack Riley, an expert in public safety and justice at Rand and a supervisor of the study, told me last week. "The current way of getting to LAX -- having people arrive at various terminals -- is a relatively un-dense process. The new plan as described concentrates people in a dense target and at various chokepoints," including people-moving trams. This setup, he says, also would create multiple bottlenecks if the airport needs to be rapidly evacuated.

When I raised this issue with the mayor's office, I was told that the design is predicated on excluding cars and other potentially bomb-laden vehicles from the central terminal loop. That's important, the argument goes, because a terrorist's prime target would probably be the LAX infrastructure -- principally its terminal buildings -- rather than people.

But is this plausible?

The mayor's office believes that an attack taking down a building would create more lasting economic chaos than taking lives. But the Rand study examined the 225 aviation-related terrorist attacks since 1980 in its database, and found scarcely any in which demolishing bricks and mortar, rather than inflicting casualties, was the main goal. In their own report, the airport's terrorism consultants at Science Applications International Corp. stressed the chance of "significant loss of life" along with "damage to a building" as the chief reasons for concern about the vulnerability of a big facility.

One wonders whether, deep down, the LAX planners recognize how much the massing of people at its centralized facilities might unnerve travelers. It's significant that a computer-generated video they've produced of the new LAX depicts it as a complex of airy, vaulted concourses in which passengers amble directly to check-in kiosks, wait patiently on spacious tram platforms, and cruise through security checkpoints as insouciantly as though they're strolling through the Louvre.

Any experienced air traveler would view these scenes and think: "Dream on." If the designers want to give us a realistic picture, they should show us what the place might look like when a security glitch on a holiday weekend turns this pastorale into a teeming, throbbing mass backed up all the way to Century Boulevard.

The security misgivings aren't the only objections that have been raised about Hahn's plan. Many airlines serving LAX -- which figure to be on the hook for about half of the $9-billion cost -- dislike the shifting of arrival and departure services to a remote location, in part because they think passengers will hate being shunted around. They're also afraid that this arrangement will compromise, rather than enhance, security.

Instead of waiting indefinitely for the master plan to win approval, the carriers would like to see money spent immediately on upgrading Bradley International Terminal to accommodate the huge 555-passenger Airbus A380 planes that several lines hope to start deploying in 2007.

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