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LAX north runways are deemed safe

An academic panel issues a report saying any gains from increasing the distance between the two runways would not be worth the cost. Airport commissioners are not convinced.

February 20, 2010|By Jeff Gottlieb

The two north runways at Los Angeles International Airport are "extremely safe" and will remain so even at projected 2020 traffic levels, a panel of six professors said in a report released Friday.

The panel said that while other proposals, including widening the distance between the two runways, might make taking off and landing safer, "the risk is so low, reducing the risk by a substantial percentage is of limited practical importance."

Five previous studies, performed by groups affiliated with the airline industry, concluded the airport should reconfigure the runways to provide an extra cushion of safety. Arnold Barnett, the MIT statistics professor who headed the panel, said the difference was that his group was the first to define the level of risk.

The news was welcomed by residents of the nearby Westchester neighborhood, who had been worried that moving the runway would require appropriating some homes and part of an adjacent business district.

The head of a group that opposes airport expansion also applauded the panel's conclusions. "Obviously, I'm excited," said Denny Schneider, president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion. "They came to the same conclusion that we did."

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Westchester and has resisted expansion plans, also greeted the conclusions warmly. "It basically puts to rest the issue of safety on the runways," he said. "It is no longer something of concern."

However, the Federal Aviation Administration released a statement taking issue with the report.

"Multiple studies by airport design and layout experts have concluded that reconfiguring the south and north airfields are the best safety and efficiency solutions." it said. "Conclusions that the north airfield is safe enough now are not an argument against doing everything possible to make it even safer."

The report cost about $2 million and was 18 months in the making, with simulations doneat NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, north of San Jose.

A federal Government Accountability Office report released two years ago found that since 2001, LAX has had the most on-ground close calls of any major American airport, as well as the highest number of incidents classified as severe.

A $339-million project that put more space between the two south runways and added a taxiway between them was completed last year.

The academic committee was charged with looking at five options. One was to do nothing, while a second would push the northernmost runway 100 feet north into Westchester. A third would push that runway north by 340 feet. A fourth would eliminate one of the two northern runways. A fifth would call on the airport to relocate one of the north runways 340 feet south, which would require the demolition of Terminals 1, 2 and 3.

As the panel members explained to the Board of Airport Commissioners how they arrived at their conclusions, the presentation took on the air of a statistics class.

When Mark Hansen, a professor of civil engineering at UC Berkeley tried to clarify a point, Commissioner Walter Zifkin, laughed and said, "I'll talk to you later."

According to MIT's website, "Barnett has been called 'the nation's leading expert' on aviation safety." He said Friday that because flying commercial planes in the U.S. has become so safe, "reducing that risk by a substantial percentage is of limited practical value" because it would save only a few lives a decade.

If safety is the purpose, money might be better spent on things other than the runway proposals, he said.

Airport commissioners did not immediately buy into the 164-page report's conclusions.

Commissioner Michael Lawson brought up the statistical long shots of recent disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina. "But it happened," he said.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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