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Attention LAX shoppers

September 11, 2006

FOR SCORES OF MILLIONS OF VISITORS every year, Los Angeles International Airport is their first impression of the city and the region. Luckily, they're not coming there for the concessions. The shopping at LAX is as bland as L.A.'s is glamorous.

That could soon change -- but only if city officials are willing to buck their own system. Contracts for 51 storefronts (of more than 200) at LAX are once again up for review by the Airport Commission, which is expected to make its decisions sometime next year.

The signing of multimillion-dollar deals to run duty-free shops, restaurants and other businesses at the city-owned airport has for at least two decades been the source of some of L.A.'s worst political scandals. Under Mayor Tom Bradley, airport commissioners solicited campaign funds from contractors, and some political insiders collected millions on contracts without actually managing any concessions. Mayor James Hahn was also dogged by allegations of pay-to-play shenanigans involving airport contracts.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had to give back thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from employees of a Florida company seeking an airport concession. It remains to be seen whether Villaraigosa is willing to cross his union support, which favors maintaining the status quo at the airport because new contractors might not hire union workers.

LAX's concessions are characterized by generic national chains, cookie-cutter storefronts and inflated prices. It's little wonder that in 2005, 21 airports surpassed it in sales per departing passenger at their retail facilities. This matters to taxpayers because a quarter of the revenue for the city agency that runs Los Angeles' four airports comes from concessions.

The Airport Commission, whose seven members are appointed by the mayor, deferred a decision last week. At issue is whether to continue awarding concessions to companies that then lease the shops, or to lease the spaces individually. Or the city could hire developers to essentially build and lease malls in the airport, an approach that has been successful in cities such as Pittsburgh. Then maybe LAX could have shopping as interesting as the city it serves.

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