In the latest of a series of reports and retorts over whether the two north runways at Los Angeles International Airport should be reconfigured, the Federal Aviation Administration has sharply criticized a panel of academics that said the runways were "extremely safe" and that further safety measures would be of "limited practical importance."
In an April 2 letter to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt said he supported creating more space between the runways and placing a taxiway between them to prevent ground collisions between planes. LAX has had more on-ground close calls than any U.S. airport, according to a federal study released two years ago, and Babbitt cited two more in March.
In a statement Tuesday, Villaraigosa said he opposed reconfiguring the north airfield "absent a clear demonstration that such a change is necessary to ensure the safety of passengers, workers and the surrounding community."
However, he said the FAA letter "has raised serious safety questions that cannot be ignored," and he has asked the Board of Airport Commissioners and Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX, to review the issues.
Five earlier studies, performed by groups affiliated with the airline industry, said the runways should be reconfigured to provide extra safety.
The most recent report, issued in February, was headed by a statistician from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It cost about $2 million and was 18 months in the making. The academic panel said that while changes to the runways might make taking off and landing safer, they would be of limited value.
Babbitt, a former airline pilot who said he has flown into LAX hundreds of times, said the FAA "identified several critical flaws in the study's assumptions, methodology and conclusions."
"The status quo is not good enough for the FAA, and the city of Los Angeles should not view it as good enough for the traveling public," Babbitt said.
Babbitt also said that the FAA has given LAX a number of waivers to operate the north field and that it does not meet FAA standards.
Much of the battle over the north runways pits those who want to modify them and increase traffic against those who oppose LAX growth and would like to see more flights shifted to other regional airports.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents airport-adjacent Westchester, blasted the FAA, which he said was only interested in "expansion, expansion, expansion."
The FAA was not alone in criticizing the academic panel's report. Last month the Air Line Pilots Assn., International also criticized the report on safety grounds.
The academic panel is expected to report back to the Board of Airport Commissioners at the end of the month with its answers to the comments it has received on its report.