NYTimes.com Article: Growing Pains for Los Angeles' Airport
Mon, 14 Jan 2002 16:51:36 -0500 (EST)
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El Toro is a good answer, but not going to happen, I suppose. I guess we'll just have to raze Inglewood and extend LAX out to the beach....
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Growing Pains for Los Angeles' Airport
January 14, 2002
By JAMES STERNGOLD
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 13 - The inauguration of a flight
connecting a distant Los Angeles suburb with Hermosillo, a
provincial city in Mexico, would not seem cause for toasts
and speeches. But Mayor James K. Hahn himself led the
festivities recently at the Ontario, Calif., airport,
saying he was making a point about the future.
The Los Angeles mayor used the event to kick-start his plan
for resolving what many experts regard as a kind of
slow-motion air travel crisis. With Los Angeles
International Airport badly overburdened and the
communities around it fighting its expansion, the mayor is
pushing new routes to the area's smaller airports, like
But the real symbolism of the ceremony there may have come
when that first Aeromexico flight prepared to depart: only
11 passengers showed up, a clear sign that this airport,
about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, is far from
Even before Sept. 11, the Los Angeles region was facing
enormous political and logistical problems with air travel,
which is critical to its economic vigor. The terrorism
crisis has only made the issue knottier. The sudden need
for increased security has made any solution far more
expensive. And the number of passengers has plunged since
the attacks, creating uncertainty about just what the
future needs will be.
Perhaps worse, the concerns over terrorism appear to have
sapped whatever will may have existed to face up to local
opposition and take the step that many planners prefer, a
major expansion of Los Angeles International Airport, known
To some, the mayor of a metropolis as sprawling as this one
is wise to promote far-flung airports. But the airlines and
many people in business say Mr. Hahn's plan is doomed to
failure because few want to fly out of the more remote
airports like Ontario's. They accuse the mayor of wishfully
thinking that other communities will accept what those
around LAX are rejecting.
The region around Ontario, an area far to the east known as
the Inland Empire, supports expansion as an economic boon.
But the linchpin of the mayor's plan is the construction of
a big international airport at what was once a major Air
Force base at El Toro, in the middle of Orange County.
That plan faces rigid opposition, too, and in March
residents will vote for the third time in recent years on a
referendum on whether to turn the old base into an airport
or a public park. Polls indicate that the park plan will
win, potentially leaving the mayor without space for
handling the 30 million passengers a year intended for El
"The pre-Sept. 11 environment wasn't encouraging," said
Jack Weiss, a member of the Los Angeles City Council who
favors expanding the main airport. "Post-Sept. 11, I think
there has been, properly, a shift with the focus on
security, not expansion. But the two should not be mutually
The mayor's aides say it is a matter of social equity.
"LAX has had to shoulder the bulk of the region's air
traffic," said Troy Edwards, a deputy mayor in charge of
the airport planning. "It's not fair for the people who
live around there, and it's also not economically
Asked what the city had planned if the El Toro airport is
not built, he said nothing.
"The big drop in traffic after September has just made the
problem more dangerous," said Steven P. Erie, a professor
of urban planning at the University of California at San
Diego. "It lulls us into a sense of complacency, a feeling
that we won't have to deal with this for another 5 or 10
years. And that just isn't true."
He added: "The problem is air traffic is going to come
back. This is a real crisis and it won't go away that
The Southern California Association of Governments, a
regional planning body, has said that long-term travel
projections should remain largely the same, despite the
decline after Sept. 11.
The Los Angeles airport underwent its last major expansion
in 1984, for the Olympics. Its capacity then was 40 million
passengers a year. In 2001 it handled an estimated 62
million passengers. Under the mayor's plan, it is intended
to handle 78 million passengers in 2025.
Even that goal will involve a step- by-step tearing down
and rebuilding of most of the terminals. In addition,
because the airport is one of the country's most dangerous
as measured by near-misses by planes, runways will have to
Los Angeles' previous mayor, Richard J. Riordan, had
proposed expanding LAX to handle nearly 100 million
passengers a year. But in the face of local opposition he
stopped pressing the issue. In October, Mayor Hahn
officially announced that his focus would be on security
rather than expansion.
The real growth in regional capacity is expected to come at
Ontario and El Toro, under the mayor's proposal. Ontario's
current traffic of about 6 million passengers a year is
expected to grow to 30 million a year by 2025. El Toro
would also be built to handle 30 million passengers a year.
The benefit, proponents say, is that it would move the
airport capacity closer to places where the population is
shifting, particularly the Inland Empire.
Airline executives dismiss this notion as fanciful. They
argue that travelers prefer large hubs because they offer
more flights and more airlines.
"At the end of the day, people fly where they want to fly,"
said Michael Whitaker, a vice president for governmental
affairs at United Airlines, the biggest carrier at Los
Angeles. If the airport congestion in Los Angeles gets
worse and routes get pushed to the more remote airports, he
added, many flyers will go to San Francisco, Phoenix or
Many here hope that the El Toro vote in March will settle
the issue. But there are already signs that the planning
headaches may not end then. Opponents of that airport have
vowed to fight in the courts as long as it takes to kill
"If the vote fails?" asked Larry Agran, the mayor of Irvine
and one of the staunchest opponents of El Toro. "I think
we'd be in trench warfare for another 20 years."
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