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Too close for comfort

Near misses on LAX runways are a warning that the time for study and debate is past.

December 07, 2007

Afederal report on air safety released Wednesday was notable not only for its conclusion that near misses among planes on the ground are soaring nationwide, but for pointing out that Los Angeles International Airport is the U.S. headquarters of potential disaster. LAX had the most close calls of the country's busiest commercial airports over the last eight years, according to the Government Accountability Office, and the highest number of incidents considered the most severe.

Air traffic controllers, who have complained for years that they're overworked and underpaid, found some ammunition in the GAO report, which concluded that controller fatigue was a factor in many of the "runway incursions" -- events in which an aircraft gets too close for safety to another plane or a service vehicle. But LAX controllers aren't any more overworked than their peers elsewhere; LAX's woes center on its dangerous and outdated configuration, as well as political inertia and legal battles that have prevented officials from fixing the known problems for a decade.

The parallel runways at LAX's north field are too close together. This is the unanimous conclusion of both the former Federal Aviation Administration chief and her successor, as well as multiple independent studies on airport safety, including five that were performed after a plan to modernize the north runways was scrapped to settle a lawsuit in 2004. But the opinions of every expert who has studied LAX aren't good enough for the airport's residential neighbors in Westchester, who fear that plans to move one runway about 300 feet farther north would mar their quality of life. Though representing a tiny portion of L.A.'s population, this group of NIMBYs has been phenomenally successful in electing powerful politicians to promote its view.

Gina Marie Lindsey, the new Los Angeles World Airports chief, promised at a luncheon Thursday that construction would start soon at LAX, but she was talking about passenger amenities such as new bathrooms, not vital safety improvements. The fixes to the north field are caught up in the squabbles over expansion of the entire airport, which has been stalled since the mid-'90s administration of Mayor Richard Riordan. For Riordan, the justification for expansion hinged on economics: LAX was nearing capacity, and its continued growth was important for L.A.'s economic health. That remains true today, but it's only part of the issue. The cowardice of L.A. elected officials, who tend to call for yet more studies rather than making hard choices, is endangering lives.

The latest study was ordered in August by the Board of Airport Commissioners, and its results probably won't appear until summer at the earliest. Rather than continuing to study and debate the necessity of reconfiguring the north field, officials should be figuring out the best way to go about it -- and sending in the bulldozers before an incursion ends in a fireball rather than a close call.

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