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LAX Runways Get Safer

June 24, 2008

By Art Marroquin

RELATED: Odor prompts emergency landing

The south airfield at Los Angeles International Airport will get an added measure of safety when a new $83 million centerline taxiway opens today.

The 10,000-foot-long strip will provide a buffer zone for airplanes maneuvering between the southern runways at LAX, which have long been considered a danger zone.

“This is an incredibly important project because the center taxiway greatly reduces the chance that a serious incident will occur on the south airfield,” said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

For years, the FAA had blamed the layout of LAX’s south airfield for being a major cause of serious runway incursions.

LAX logged more runway incursions than any other airport in the country from 2000 to 2003, with most of the problems reported on the southern runways. In 2006 and 2007, 16 close calls were reported between aircraft maneuvering on the ground, nine of which were on the south airfield, according to the FAA.

However, no serious runway incursions have been reported on the south airfield since officials opened portions of the new center taxiway last August, according to Gregor.

“The new taxiway eliminated the circumstances that led to many of the runway incidents on the south airfield,” Gregor said. “The high- speed taxiways were the culprit in most of the serious runway incursions on the south airfield.”

Under the old system, airplanes landing on the southernmost runway at LAX had to use short, high-speed taxiways to cross the inner runway to reach the airport’s terminals.

Some airplanes occasionally failed to stop and wait for clearance before crossing onto the second runway, putting them in the path of another jet taking off or landing.

The precarious situation prompted airport officials to draw up a plan to separate the parallel southern runways by 55 feet, making room for the center aisle.

The addition of a centerline taxiway will force the airplanes to slow down by taking them into a series of turns. It will also give planes a place to wait for clearance before crossing the inner runway.

“The runway incursions that typically happen on the south airfield are exactly the kind that the centerline taxiway are meant to address,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose 11th District includes LAX.

“Obviously we’re really happy because the project is completed and it will significantly enhance safety on the south airfield,” he said. “This new taxiway will significantly reduce runway incursions, and we’re all for improving safety at LAX.”

The entire southern runway improvement project marks the completion of the first element of the massive LAX Master Plan, and serves as the first hint of modernization at the airport since several terminals were built for the 1984 Summer Olympics.

The project took nearly two years to complete, but was done within a $333 million budget and delivered four days early, according to Darryl Ryan, a spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“LAX is the West Coast’s gateway to the world,” Ryan said. “With projects like the south airfield improvements LAX is reshaping Southern California’s regional aviation network and maintaining a stronghold on its position as a world-class facility, technological leader and one of the world’s safest airports.”

A legal settlement reached in December 2005 with the county, three cities and a community group cleared all the legal challenges that had nearly thwarted the project.

The city of El Segundo had initially fought against moving the southernmost runway amid concerns over increased noise from the jets, coupled with the fact that planes would be landing closer to the city’s border.

But under the settlement, El Segundo and other airport-area neighborhoods received millions of dollars to insulate homes against airport noise.

By July 2006, construction crews began the demolition of the southernmost runway and rebuilt it about 55 feet closer to El Segundo, clearing the way for the new center taxiway.

“There was more noise from the project’s construction than what we expect to hear from the airplanes coming in,” said El Segundo Mayor Kelly McDowell. “When everything gets back to what passes for normal around here, I think we will be very happy with the fact that we have improved safety at the airport’s south airfield.”

However, debate continues on how to improve safety for two runways on the north side of LAX, which have the same layout as the old south airfield.

Westchester and Playa del Rey residents are opposed to any plans that call for shifting the northernmost runway up to 340 feet toward their homes and businesses.

Three years ago, the FAA supported a plan that called for moving the inner runway about 340 feet south to make room for a centerline taxiway. Such a move would lead to the demolition of Terminals 1, 2 and 3.

For now, the north airfield’s fate remains in limbo as a series of studies move ahead.

“Do we need a centerline taxiway on the north side?” Rosendahl asked. “That’s what the studies will decide.” art.marroquin@dailybreeze.com

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