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If You Think LAX Is Busy Now, Just Wait a Month

One of four runways will be closed during major construction. Stand by for delays.

July 02, 2006|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

An intricate, two-year ballet between heavy machinery and jets plying a busy airfield debuts this month at LAX when workers start moving one of the airport's four runways.

Around midnight July 29, airport workers will paint large yellow Xs on the southernmost runway, a signal to pilots that it is closed. Then, multitudes of dump trucks, graders and excavators will roll onto the airfield, not far from where hundreds of airliners will continue to take off and land each day.

The first major project at Los Angeles International Airport in two decades aims to improve safety and prepare the airport for a new generation of jumbo jets. Work will begin just as the airport enters its most hectic month of the year, putting pilots, airlines, air traffic controllers -- and members of nearby communities -- on edge.

"I think delays will be more significant than the original forecasts," Jon Russell, a safety coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Assn., said of the $333-million project to move the runway 55 feet south -- closer to the airport's boundary with El Segundo -- and build new taxiways.

The impending mix of heavy construction equipment and commercial air traffic at a crowded airport about to lose one-fourth of its runways has officials looking for ways to head off long delays, which could trigger problems at other airports as well.

Things could get especially dicey during foggy weather or if too many planes queue up for the remaining runways. The Federal Aviation Administration recently took the unusual step of suggesting that airlines rework their schedules to cut back their peak-time LAX operations.

And LAX is experiencing its busiest summer in years, with long lines at ticket counters and security checkpoints, packed planes and routinely overbooked flights.

Airport officials say they must begin work on the project now to be ready to reopen the runway in time to handle the Airbus A380 next year. The soon-to-be-relocated runway, one of two that lie south of the terminals, is the only one of the airport's runways wide enough to accommodate the 555-seat behemoth. (The other two runways are north of the terminals. The runways south of the terminals are the longest of the four.)

"It's a tremendous safety improvement. We want to get it done as quickly as we can," said Jake Adams, runway project manager for the city's airport agency.

The agency and federal aviation officials have lobbied the City Council for years to move the runway. But lawsuits by neighboring cities hamstrung the project until December, when Los Angeles agreed to rethink its LAX modernization plans in exchange for the suits being dropped.

The city's airport agency and the FAA have argued that the work would help prevent close calls on the ground between aircraft at LAX, which historically has had among the nation's highest rates of so-called runway incursion incidents.

More than 80% of the close calls at LAX occur on the south side after pilots land on the outer runway, turn right onto a series of taxiways and stop too close to the inner runway, where planes take off.

After construction is complete, pilots will land on the outer runway and turn onto a new center taxiway, forcing them to slow down before they enter a series of secondary taxiways to cross the inner runway.

After the runway reopens in March, officials will start building the center taxiway and connecting it to both runways on the airport's south side with more taxiways.

Until the taxiways are completed in July 2008, things will be even more challenging as workers stitch connectors to the inner runway at night, keeping the runway open during the day.

Moving the southernmost runway is a massive undertaking that required months of planning to reorchestrate 1,800 flights that use the airport each day and to reroute airplanes once they land.

Construction will bring more than 800 truck trips a day, while most of the airport's south side -- including its remaining runway -- will stay open to air traffic. At night, when much of the major work will take place, many Boeing 747 cargo jets will have to cross the construction zone to access warehouses on the airport's south side.

"We're building something that's 3 miles long, 4 feet deep and 200 feet wide," said Ray Jack, airport operations supervisor at LAX. "It's a huge project."

In periodic briefings with truck drivers and other construction workers about the dangers of driving on an airfield, Jack uses dramatic pictures from a Sept. 27, 1999, accident at LAX involving a Corsair Boeing 747, a pickup and several large dump trucks.

The far right engine on the two-story aircraft smashed into two big-rig dirt haulers -- peeling back the cab roof on each like the skin of an orange -- and hit a white pickup, flipping it over, after the pilot turned onto a closed taxiway late at night.

No one was hurt. The aircraft, with 321 on board, was taxiing for takeoff.

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