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Get a grip on LAX

To help it move into the 21st century, the airport needs more gates and other improvements.

March 02, 2007

LOS ANGELES International Airport is a patchwork of aging, cramped terminals in need of much-deferred maintenance, unable to properly modernize because of neighbors' complaints. Things are so bad that passengers on many flights must often board buses to reach their gates. Apparently, it hadn't occurred to local lawmakers until now that such a state of affairs might be a problem.

As a Times story noted last week, international carriers are shifting their business from LAX to San Francisco and elsewhere, potentially taking hundreds of millions in tourism revenue with them. So City Councilwoman Janice Hahn ordered the airport agency to look into building 11 new gates on the west side of the Tom Bradley International Terminal. On Monday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he supported the plan.

Building these gates is a great idea. But it's also a very old one, and so blazingly obvious that it's astonishing nobody brought it up before. A $723-million renovation of the Bradley terminal broke ground Monday, but it won't include the new gates. In fact, it won't expand the facility at all; it will simply upgrade the interior and improve security operations. Wouldn't it have made sense to add the gates at the same time?

Unfortunately, common sense has nothing to do with the LAX planning process. The city has spent $150 million and a decade bickering with neighbors about the future of its major airport. The gates on the west side of the Bradley terminal (which currently has 12 gates on its east side but none on the west) were part of the modernization master plan finalized under former Mayor James K. Hahn, and were designated as among the plan's least controversial and most urgent projects. But then, following the settlement of a lawsuit with the airport's neighbors in 2005, the master plan went back to the drawing board.

LAX faces strong competition from cities whose airports have better amenities. The airport has lost 12% of the seats on its weekly international departures since 2000, while other U.S. gateways are growing. This is only going to get worse. New-generation aircraft, including the 555-seat Airbus A380, are too big for conventional gates. By the end of this year, despite the fact that LAX is expected to be the nation's primary A380 destination, Bradley will have only two gates capable of handling the giant plane.

The new gates at Bradley would fall under the growth cap imposed by the settlement with neighbors, and some would be big enough for the new aircraft. They would be funded mostly by landing and passenger fees, not taxpayers. They would please both passengers and international carriers and make LAX more competitive. Hahn, Villaraigosa and the City Council just need to make it happen -- as they should have done a long time ago.

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