A multistory centerpiece of the modernization plan for Los Angeles International Airport would block the direct view of air traffic controllers for a busy portion of the complex, including gates, aircraft ramps and taxiways, officials acknowledge.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic controllers, the blind spots would be created by the $1.5-billion remodeling of the Tom Bradley International Terminal. The project would dominate the west end of the terminal area and have a roof line ranging from five to nine stories high.
"Basically, they will create a giant billboard in the middle of the seventh-busiest airport in the world," said Mike Foote, an air traffic controller at LAX and chapter president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. "The backside of the terminal will have a bunch of new gates. We won't be able to see any of them. It is the same for the ramps and taxiways."
For almost two years, officials with the FAA and Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX, have been assessing the visibility problems and developing possible solutions.
Airport officials say the planned installation of radar, laser-guided aircraft docking technology and closed-circuit television cameras should make it possible for controllers to track and guide planes safely through areas they can't see directly.
They added that a new taxiway that is visible from the control tower would be built well beyond the Bradley terminal and that small ramp towers staffed with controllers also could be constructed to monitor aircraft coming into and out of the eight gates planned for the terminal's west side.
"We will be relying on the next generation of technology," said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports. "It will give pilots and air traffic controllers more information and enhance the capabilities of everyone involved. It's better to rely on a plethora of tools. We are not taking out the human eye."
The controller's association has suggested building a second control tower as a way to maintain good visibility west of the Bradley, an approach Lindsey called "yesterday's technology" and more suited to the association's interests of having a new facility that would need more controllers.
Foote disagreed, saying the LAX radar system can have gaps in its coverage and is not always precise. Adding television monitors in the control tower to view taxiways, he added, would cause controllers to increasingly take their eyes off the airfield.
The controllers' association also is concerned because rank-and-file controllers at LAX were left out of a review of the Bradley's design by the FAA's airport division, which approved the project about a year ago.
Though the proposal has been approved by the agency, FAA officials said they would convene another evaluation panel to look at all aspects of the Bradley renovation. It would include the agency's air traffic and airport divisions, the controllers association, pilots and LAX officials.
Unless adequate solutions are found, Foote said, the rebuilt Bradley terminal could complicate ground control operations and lead to safety and efficiency problems when moving aircraft.
"We don't want a virtual tower," Foote said. "We need to see airplanes or things slow down or become more difficult. We expect that the FAA will take the safest, most effective route. If we can't work airplanes safely, we won't work the airplanes."
In a worst-case example, controllers cite the collision of a USAir Boeing 737 and a SkyWest commuter plane on a runway at LAX that killed 34 people in February 1991.
Though it was not a direct cause of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded, among other things, that FAA management did not promptly correct glare problems that made it difficult for controllers to see planes in some areas of the airport.
"Any time you can't see an aircraft as an air traffic controller, it's an issue," said Elliot Brann, the air traffic controllers association's regional representative for runway safety. "With the new construction, LAX could potentially become one of the top blind-spot airports in the region."
Brann, who is familiar with airports in California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii, said there could be safety issues because a new cross-field taxiway would be situated west of the Bradley terminal, where many aircraft would be moving between the north and south runway complexes.
Blind spots created by terminal expansions and construction have occurred at LAX before. They resulted in construction of a new 277-foot control tower in the mid-1990s that replaced an earlier facility that was 165 feet tall.
Despite the taller structure, sections of two taxiways on the airport's west side are blocked from the direct view of air traffic controllers. Radar is used to help guide planes through those areas and warning signs have been posted for pilots.
Though controllers remain concerned about the taxiways, the situation has existed for years without a serious incident.
"Mitigating measures can reduce blind spots," said Mike Molina, a deputy executive director at Los Angeles World Airports. "Blind spots are defined by eyesight. There are no blind spots when you factor in the enhanced technology now available to airports and control towers. The phrase 'blind spot' is obsolete."