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Getting too close to home

Westchester residents fear expansion at LAX, which may act to shift northern runway.

August 26, 2007|Steve Hymon and Martha Groves | Times Staff Writers

On a Friday night in 1991, a USAir jetliner was cleared to land on a north runway at Los Angeles International Airport just as a twin-engine commuter plane was waiting to take off farther up the same strip.

Seconds after touching down, the USAir jet slammed into the SkyWest plane, and 34 people eventually died.

The fireball arose just a few hundred yards south of Westchester, a middle-class Los Angeles community that has long had a love-hate relationship with the nation's fifth-busiest passenger airport.

Neighbors who travel a lot delight in being just a hop away from the giant transportation gateway. But others remember how the neighborhood had to give up 4,500 homes when the airport expanded in the 1970s.

Now there are fears that the airport is set to expand again. Citing a series of runway incursions in which planes nearly collided -- the most recent occurring Aug. 16 -- and a need to accommodate a new generation of jumbo jets, officials are pressing to shift the airport's northern-most runway 300 feet in Westchester's direction, placing noise, pollution and ground safety threats closer to their doors.

Airport officials say they can move the runway without expanding the airport's current footprint or taking any homes. But some Westchester residents have their doubts.

"We accept that the airport is there," said Denny Schneider, a resident who leads the LAX watchdog group Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion. "We're not opposed to it; we want it to be a good neighbor.

"Do I regret living in Westchester? Absolutely not. Am I concerned enough that I am actually considering moving at this time? Yes, I have been looking at houses. Do I want to move? No."

On Thursday, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Marion Blakey was in Los Angeles to implore business leaders and elected officials to make the north airfield safer by putting more distance between its two parallel runways, one for takeoffs and the other for landings. Although the circumstances of the 1991 USAir crash were unique, Blakey made a compelling argument that too many planes have intruded into one another's space on the ground at LAX.

"Fix the north airfield now," Blakey said.

Many of the tree-lined streets in Westchester would look at home in a distant suburb, with children's swings bolted into the branches of frontyard trees and gardening tools stashed on porches. In recent years, the community has been in the midst of a robust remodeling boom as owners transform single-story houses into bigger, boxier abodes, many of them with distinct architectural touches.

The airport to its south opened in 1927 -- although commercial traffic didn't start until the 1940s -- and street names near LAX reflect the community's long-running ties to aviation: Wiley Post, Glider, Airlane, Kittyhawk. Howard Hughes, the eccentric aviator and movie director, operated a large manufacturing plant in what is now the Playa Vista community, north of Westchester's Loyola Marymount University.

Many residents appear to be remarkably sanguine about the more or less constant refrain of jet noise emanating from the airport. It's not that they don't notice. It's just that many of them have grown accustomed to the rumblings.

"When you live somewhere, you kind of get used to it," said Patrick Doolin, 41, a 10-year resident, as he pruned bougainvillea in front of his freshly painted home on 84th Street on Thursday.

He noted, however, that "even at 2 in the morning, you hear jets taking off or revving their engines." At times, the noise is enough to temporarily halt telephone conversations inside the house. And when the wind is just right the smell of jet fuel permeates the neighborhood.

Still, Doolin and his housemate George Alex, 37, say Westchester is a pleasant and desirable place to live. "It's generally quiet," Doolin said, if one doesn't count the jets flying overhead, the drone of gardeners' leaf blowers and the pounding of construction workers.

But the prospect of an expanded northern LAX airfield displeases Doolin. "I wouldn't like that at all," he said.

Lisa Hodge, a Realtor who has lived in Westchester for six years, said she finds it fascinating that residents are loyal to Westchester, despite the airport noise and safety issues.

"I've never had a buyer not want to buy in Westchester because we hear planes," said Hodge, who added that she actually enjoys the nightly light show that the aircraft provide. People prize the central location, the caring and watchful neighbors and the proximity to the beach, just west beyond Playa del Rey.

"Manhattan Beach is one way, Marina del Rey is the other," Hodge said. The airport is quite handy. "You can almost walk," she said. "You don't get that rolling of eyes when you ask a neighbor to give you a ride because it only takes one minute."

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