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Behind the scenes at LAX

LAX, the world's seventh-busiest airport? handles 1,700 flights a day and 61 million passengers? a year. Here's a look at its special challenges and? the folks who make it work anyway.

September 30, 2011|By Chris Erskine | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Planes from around the world line up at LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal. The terminal's food court is a good hangout spot for long layovers. It has the nicest views, most food choices and comfy seating.
Planes from around the world line up at LAX's Tom Bradley International… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

It's a Thursday evening, and the landing lights of incoming LAX flights glow like torches from Westchester to the San Gabriels. Torch one, 200 lives suspended in air. Torch two, 500. Torch three, 350 awaiting their return to loved ones, bosses, business meetings, auditions and, for many, the soul-saving comfort of their own pillows.

This high-wire act is more than just symbolic of the seventh-busiest airport in the world. It speaks to the risks involved, the importance of procedure, the crushing, timed-to-the-minute routine.

Perhaps no entity in the world juggles as many disciplines as a major airport: security, meteorology, technology, mixology, pipe-fitting, sharpshooting, sushi making and more.

But who runs LAX? Bill, the fire captain. Gary, the luggage supervisor. Max, a Belgian Malinois with a nose for bombs — imperfect strangers you hope know what they're doing, got enough sleep and can put your worries ahead of theirs.

On average, LAX handles almost 1,700 takeoffs and landings a day (even more during holidays), and firefighters will respond to at least one of them at full throttle — they make one to two emergency calls a day here — part of the largely invisible world of numbing protocol and screaming scramble that keeps an airport humming.

As passengers, we breeze through this place almost 61 million times a year, hoping/praying/trusting that the people behind the scenes know what they're doing. But a modern airport shouldn't be such a mystery. With that in mind, here's a glimpse at the people who make LAX go and the daily challenges they face:

The 'war room'

Open since December, the Airport Response Coordination Center, or ARCC, is the airport's central nervous system. Operators here control the stoplights outside the terminals to regulate vehicle flow. From here, an incident desk deploys plumbers to the flood in a restroom in Terminal 2 or a leaky water fountain in Terminal 3.

In a smaller room steps away, a police officer checks hundreds of surveillance cameras that monitor entrances, checkpoints and runways. Zooms in, zooms out, tilts down, pans left. What's he looking for? Anomalies. Anything that doesn't make sense in the normal flow of a gigantic airport.

Every ID swipe is tracked, any ajar door. Pull a defibrillator out of its box and an alarm rings here.

In an emergency, ARCC goes into war-room mode, and staff from the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, Airport Police and other agencies that run LAX move to an even tighter work space where they can work elbow to elbow and make decisions instantly from big-screen info they all share.

Where the units once operated independently in seven locations around the airport, they now work together at the ARCC, where an 8 a.m. meeting of the various agency reps kicks off each day.

Today, a Tuesday, LAX will see about 170,000 passengers, enough to fill a large stadium about twice over. A change in wind direction means the airport is on an "east traffic" flow, so planes are taking off to the east and landing from the west, opposite the norm.

Other than that, it seems to be a routine day, says Rodney Thompson, one of eight LAX duty managers employed by Los Angeles World Airports, the city department that runs the airport. Terminal 3 is being pressure washed. Fire sprinkler work will shut down parts of Terminals 5 and 6. An onramp to the 105 Freeway is closed — not under the airport's range of control, but a situation that will affect traffic flow.

Out on runway 24L, meanwhile, airport operations superintendent Michael Corlett calls the control tower for clearance, then speeds down the runway at 70 mph in a Crown Victoria, looking for debris or signs of runway deterioration, stopping quickly to pick up a stray 2-inch bolt on a taxi way.

The stultifying routine of a 24/7 operation, open every day of the year, and busier on holidays than any other time, is validated by such little discoveries as a 2-inch bolt that, in the wrong spot, could shred the tire of a 747 touching down at 200 mph.

A dog named Max

American Airlines employee Julio Ortiz is what the airline calls a "yada," sort of a concierge who works the Terminal 5 kiosk area, helping folks check in. Brandishing a hand-held computer, he can do just about anything someone at the ticket counter can do. The goal: to move people through the terminal and out to the concourses as quickly as possible.

That's good business, but it's also part of an overall security strategy. After 9/11, a RAND study on LAX called terminal areas prime targets for car and truck bombings. Staffing was increased, and self-help kiosks were added, all designed to speed the flow of passengers from the curb to the gate.

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