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Rules of the runway

July 22, 2006

'RESTLESSNESS AND DISCONTENT are the first necessities of progress." The phrase, attributed to Thomas Edison, is another way of saying that necessity is the mother of invention. But there's an interpretation that may be more fitting for Los Angeles fliers: The progress coming to L.A. International Airport is not going to arrive without a jumbo-jet-load of restlessness and discontent.

One week from today, the four runways at LAX will be reduced to three as the southernmost landing strip is shifted 55 feet closer to El Segundo. The $333-million project will keep the runway closed until March 2007, but that won't mark an end to the troubles for pilots and passengers. The runway will subsequently be open during the day, but it will still be closed at night as workers build new taxiways, a process that is expected to last until July 2008.

Translation: If you think long lines and delays are a problem now, just wait. The Federal Aviation Administration has performed computer simulations showing that traffic can be rerouted to the other runways without serious delays, but that isn't very comforting. No matter how good the FAA's computer models, there will be less margin for error or accident after July 29. Any mishap will be likelier to produce not just local delays but nationwide air-traffic headaches.

All this is happening largely because of a plane affectionately known as the Whalejet, though a better name might be the Albatrossjet. The existing runways aren't big enough to accommodate the new Airbus A380, a lumbering double-deck giant that will carry 555 passengers. The massive A380 was supposed to be the trendsetter in aviation -- until what may have been the biggest European aeronautical blunder since the Hindenburg.

Designers in France and Germany made separate tweaks to the blueprints without informing each other, so when builders started installing the extraordinarily complex wiring system, they got some nasty surprises. Top executives lost their jobs, the first deliveries have been delayed and Airbus is now hoping to produce nine A380s next year instead of the originally planned 25.

No matter. The Whalejet might be temporarily beached, but it's coming eventually, and LAX has to be ready. The runway construction also should improve safety in a part of the airport that has historically seen far too many close calls.

So if you find yourself eating Thanksgiving dinner at the airport Burger King instead of at Mom's house this year, just remember: It's all in the name of progress. As Edison also said: "Have faith and go forward." Just be prepared to wait on the tarmac a little longer than usual.

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