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Redefining safety at LAX

A new study of its north field runways should not be the last word on improvements at the airport.

February 22, 2010

Two years ago, the question of whether the two runways on Los Angeles International Airport's north airfield should be rebuilt farther apart didn't seem hard to answer. A report from the Government Accountability Office found that LAX had the most close calls among aircraft of any of the country's busiest commercial airports and the highest number of severe incidents. The Federal Aviation Administration had been demanding for decades that the airport address the runways' design flaws, and five independent studies on airport safety concluded that they were too close together for comfort.

And then, last week, an academic panel working with NASA unloosed a flock of sea gulls into airline regulators' jet engines. After an 18-month study, it found that although moving the runways farther apart would improve safety, the risk reduction would be so minuscule that the project wouldn't be worth the cost.

This comes as an answer to the prayers of the airport's neighbors, who have long fought to block the project out of fear that moving a runway 100 feet or more closer to their homes would harm their quality of life. Prompted by demands from area City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, airport commissioners ordered the NASA study despite the existing, overwhelming evidence. The tactic worked -- the neighbors finally found some experts who agreed with them. That's good enough for Rosendahl and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who say that runway expansion plans are now essentially dead.

If that pleases airport neighbors, it shouldn't please anyone else. One study in your favor out of six isn't a ringing endorsement. Moreover, the statistical analysis and modeling performed by the NASA panel, although convincing in its assessment that the risk of a deadly accident at the north airfield is very low (expected to happen only once every 200 years at 2020 traffic levels), also found that adding 100 feet of separation between the runways would reduce the risk of fatal collisions by 40%, and adding 340 feet would lower the risk by 55%. With the FAA and airlines putting up the $500 million for the project, isn't that worthwhile?

The NASA panel also found that the 340-foot separation plan could significantly reduce airport congestion and improve capacity -- another notion that alarms neighbors.

We're as puzzled as anybody about how airport experts could come to such widely differing conclusions on safety, and we're less convinced about the necessity of separation than we were two years ago. But we're certain that the Board of Airport Commissioners should not allow this perplexing study to be the last word on the north airfield and its troubles.

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