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Airport Turbulence Smooths Out

September 01, 2006|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

The busiest summer travel season at Los Angeles International Airport since Sept. 11, 2001, draws to a close this weekend with the Labor Day holiday. An estimated 810,000 travelers are expected to use the airport today through Monday, up about 4% over the same period last year.

LAX will be the nation's second-busiest airport over the Labor Day weekend -- after Chicago's O'Hare International -- up from No. 7 on last year's list of bustling U.S. airfields, according to online travel service Orbitz.

With more passengers traveling but fewer airplane seats to U.S. destinations to accommodate them, travel experts predicted that the period from Memorial Day through today would test the patience of even the most frequent fliers.

New security measures put in place after the Aug. 10 arrests in Britain of suspects who allegedly plotted to blow up airliners with liquid explosives also threatened to create even longer lines and flight delays.

So, what can a holiday weekend traveler expect? Based on developments this summer:

Question: Are new requirements that ban liquids on airplanes creating longer lines at security checkpoints?

Answer: No. Passengers caught on quickly to the new rules, leaving airport officials with extra empty trash bins throughout terminals. The new restrictions are, however, contributing to longer waits at the ticket counter as passengers check bags that they used to carry on. At LAX, airlines reported up to a 40% increase in checked baggage.

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Q: Has the new no-liquids policy made the usually tedious boarding process easier to endure?

A: Yes. Flight attendants report "acres of space" in the overhead bins, as more luggage goes to the cargo hold. Getting on and off airplanes is easier, as passengers are throwing fewer elbows in an effort to heave heavy bags into the overhead. But on the flip side, passengers also say they have to wait longer, on average, at baggage carousels. The new policies prompted airlines to bring on additional personnel to try to speed bags to the carousels.

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Q: What exactly is banned in the passenger compartments?

A: Passengers are not allowed to carry the following items on board: lotions, sprays, gels, lip balm, soap and beverages. Medications with a prescription attached are allowed as long as the information matches the passenger's name on the ticket. Baby food and formula are OK too, but an infant must be traveling with the items. The new restrictions are expected to remain in place indefinitely.

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Q: Do I have to take off my shoes?

A: Yes. Shoe screening is now mandatory.

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Q: How early should I arrive for my flight?

A: Get to the airport two hours before a domestic trip and three hours in advance of an international journey.

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Q: How many people have visited LAX so far this year?

A: About 35.8 million passed through the world's fifth-busiest airport from January through July, virtually unchanged from the same period last year.

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Q: Are the region's other facilities taking passengers away from LAX?

A: Yes. Facilities in Burbank, Santa Ana, Long Beach and Ontario had predicted record crowds this summer. Officials at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport had worried they would run out of parking, forcing them to redirect passengers to a garage in Van Nuys operated by Los Angeles' airport agency. Lots at the Burbank airport were routinely full this summer, but travelers were able to find space in the valet lot or short-term parking, according to a report compiled by the airport authority. Regional airport officials urge passengers to leave as much time to travel through their facilities as they would if using LAX.

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Q: Los Angeles' airport agency worried that a shortage of security screeners would create long lines at security checkpoints this summer. Are there enough screeners?

A: More screeners work at LAX -- 2,100 -- than at any other airport in the United States. Officials had worried that they would be short by 300 screeners this summer. But a series of initiatives that included reconfiguring security lanes to free up screeners to relieve bottlenecks around the airport, converting a nearby school into a hiring center and bringing on a contractor to move luggage from ticket counters to bomb-detection machines helped avert a staffing crisis. The center has allowed officials to hire dozens of new screeners in a few months. Lines are shorter, passengers report. Even so, long queues that stretch onto airport sidewalks, which experts say makes travelers vulnerable to a bomb attack, are not "gone forever," as a federal official declared in June.

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Q: With flights running full at Southern California airports this summer, experts had predicted that more people would be denied boarding even when they had a ticket. Were they?

A: No. According to statistics collected by federal officials, the number of people who were "involuntarily denied boarding," as it's known in aviation parlance, did not significantly increase this summer. The number of people who voluntarily gave up their seats, however, did go up.

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Q: Airport officials shut down LAX's southernmost runway July 29 so they could relocate it to improve safety. Air traffic controllers worried that losing a runway -- leaving the busy airport with three -- would cause flight delays. Did it?

A: The runway closing hasn't itself increased delays, officials say, but contributed to delays when a key instrument-landing system malfunctioned several times this summer. Without the southernmost runway, and the landing system, controllers had to halve the number of flights they could accept per hour.

jennifer.oldham@latimes.com

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