It's all looking a bit LAX

By Peter Huck

Los Angeles International Airport had its last upgrade before the 1984 Olympics. Photo / Reuters

When two access roads to Los Angeles International Airport were closed for 12 days last year, so Hollywood could film an explosion for the Bruce Willis film Live Free or Die Hard, the estimated 100,000 people who drive to and from LAX each day wearily accepted delays as just another obstacle in their often frustrating airport experience.

Over the years, LAX has proved a popular film location; in 2004 the airport was totalled by a giant tornado in The Day After Tomorrow.

But whereas action films simulate risk, flying in and out of America's second largest international airport - the major United States entry point for New Zealanders - arguably involves the real risk of catastrophe.

This month a sobering report on air safety cited LAX as the US airport most prone to "runway incursions". The US Government Accountability Office said close calls by aircraft on the ground had soared nationwide, with 357 near-collisions at the top 10 airports between 2000 and this year.

Unless safety improved, warned the office bluntly, there was a high risk of a catastrophic runway collision occurring in the US.

The GAO suggested the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates US civil aviation, had downplayed the risk.

Airlines reported 65 incursions, the most, at LAX, America's second-largest international airport after JFK International in New York.

The trouble-prone airport, warned the Los Angeles Times, is the US headquarters of potential disaster.

In the 12 months to the end of September, LAX logged eight episodes.

The GAO's findings led to censure.

"The FAA has let us down," said Democrat senator Frank Lautenberg.

The FAA's spokesman in Los Angeles, Ian Gregor, acknowledges problems, but says the agency has improved safety at LAX, installing new runway lights, signs and markers.

"We are about to install the latest generation ground radar at LAX," he adds, saying the agency has had "very frank discussions" at safety meetings with air traffic controllers, pilots and airport operations staff.

The last fatal collision, in 1991, killed 34. Gregor says incursions have dropped 55 per cent since 2001, when traffic at LAX before the September 11 terrorist attacks was higher with some 800,000 take-offs and landings per year.

"We've had excellent success in reducing the most serious runway incursions," he insists.

But just one disaster would negate that. LAX air traffic controllers say they struggle to cope with workloads.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Patrick Forrey says the report provides yet another compelling link between safety and controller fatigue, which is caused by staffing shortages and longer hours.

Many of the association's 11,000 members are nearing retirement.

"Probably the biggest difference they can make to improving safety is to hire enough experienced controllers to staff the tower," says union representative Mike Foote.

"We're short [of staff] every day and using overtime every day. Five-day weeks routinely stretch to six days. Fatigue heightens risks in an already stressful job. A lot of times it's not necessarily a controller making an error," he says, "but us not catching a pilot's mistake."

The FAA insists LAX has enough air traffic controllers, with 35 certified staff and 11 trainees.

One of LAX's biggest concerns is its potentially dangerous runway configuration. The field has four parallel runways, two to the north and two to the south of nine passenger terminals. Departing from runways closest to terminals, and landing on the outer strips, planes taxi across runways some 900 times a day, increasing the risk of collision.

Successive plans highlighted this danger, as did the FAA.

Hoping to eliminate this problem Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates LAX for its owner, the City of Los Angeles, has spent US$333 million ($423 million) widening the gap from 213m to about 259m - between the two southern runways. Work ends early next year.

Besides near misses, LAX has been plagued by computer glitches.

Last year, repeated malfunctions created chaos for travellers. In August, 17,000 international passengers were stranded for 10 hours, some on planes, after a customs computer crashed.

Days earlier another computer problem shut down two runways, causing widespread delays.

It echoed a radar failure, at a California desert location that handles high-altitude traffic, in July last year. That cut communications with pilots for several minutes. Critics blamed FAA maintenance staff cutbacks.

Such screw-ups reflect a steady decline in efficiency at the airport.

Like other US infrastructure meltdowns, - the collapsed Minnesota bridge, or the New Orleans levees - the problems at LAX are indicative of a deeper official malaise when it comes to spending on public safety.

Besides pressing safety worries, the airport is also grappling with post-9/11 security issues.

A classified memo, leaked to USA Today in October, said screeners at LAX failed to detect 75 per cent of fake explosives and bombs used in undercover anti-terrorism tests in 2005.

One grand plan, since axed, had travellers checking in a separate facility, then being transported to the gates. Given LAX's cramped 1386ha site - far smaller than new airports such as Denver or Dallas-Fort Worth - any expansion would likely reignite long-standing hostility from local residents.

But upgrades are crucial if LAX is to remain competitive and retain carriers.

The airport, which opened in 1930, had its last makeover before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Negotiating LAX's shoddy infrastructure - often a big surprise to first-time overseas visitors - can be a less-than-edifying experience.

The city is spending US$723.5 million to upgrade the Tom Bradley International Terminal, plus US$1.2 billion to build 10 extra gates to accommodate the new Airbus A380.

The huge aircraft, recently debuted at LAX by Qantas, is key to tapping the booming Asian market.

But landing the world's biggest plane at space-challenged LAX may be tricky.

Given the A380's enormous wingspan, Foote says it can only land on the southern runway. "It's almost like working a presidential aircraft every time that guy comes in."

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