How will Southern California accommodate the massive increases in air travel demand projected over the next 20 years? What should the maximum capacity for LAX be? Which regional airports actually want to grow? And where does it make the most sense to expand in terms of ground access? These are just a few of the questions the newly resurrected Southern California Regional Airport Authority will seek to answer as it reestablishes itself after almost eight years of dormancy. MIR was pleased to speak with SCRAA Chair and LA County Supervisor Don Knabe about what he hopes to accomplish with the Authority, as well as the County's recently filed lawsuit against the City of LA, LAWA and the FAA regarding the lack of sufficient public hearings and other alleged flaws in the LAX Master Plan process.
Supervisor, as the Chair of the newly resurrected Regional Airport Authority, can you explain for our readers why this entity-created in 1983 and deactivated in 1990-needs to be resurrected? What will be its chief mission?
Ironically, it was former LAX-chief Cliff Moore who spearheaded the Authority in the first place. At that time, however, there really wasn't much interest in regional airport planning-the Olympics were coming, the region's Air Force bases were still operating-and it became dormant in 1990.
But as someone who represents both the immediate area surrounding LAX as well as the communities beneath the airport's landing patterns-Diamond Bar, the South Bay, Palos Verdes, Cerritos-I started to ask the question: Where exactly are we going with regional airport planning? So when I found this dormant Authority, which already had a small pot of money with which to start, I realized it was the ideal vehicle to guide such growth.
The Authority consists of the counties of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange, the City of Los Angeles, and SCAG as an ad-hoc member. Instead of hearing Don Knabe who represents LAX saying, "Send it someplace else," we have representatives from all over the region publicly stating that they want additional air traffic. We certainly don't want the Airport Authority to simply become a sounding board for trashing LAX or advocating El Toro. Our purpose is to look at the regionalization of air traffic, creating an equal distribution of passenger load throughout the Southern California Basin that also makes sense in terms of ground access. To put it simply, LAX is trying to do in 3,500 acres what Denver did in 35,000 acres, even though we have 12 other major airports in the basin that want to share in that air traffic, particularly cargo.
The dynamics have changed dramatically since the 1980s: three Air Force bases have now closed (George, Norton and El Toro), and we no longer have the thermodynamics issue at Palmdale of weight restrictions on takeoffs and landings.
And opposition continues to mount. With the efforts of El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon and others, approximately 115 counties, cities and agencies have joined together to oppose the massive increase LAX is proposing and instead support a more regional approach. At the national level, Rep. Jane Harman recently put together a coalition of 12 House members from the Southern California region, which will be meeting with Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta and myself next week in Washington. Mineta has talked about the need to add runways and create more opportunities to regionalize air traffic. What this coalition is saying is that you can't do it everywhere else but Los Angeles. We'll be asking for an air space study among other things so that instead of just opposing the LAX expansion, we can offer alternative solutions.
We know that the City of Los Angeles and the FAA can do virtually anything they want to try to jam this down our throats, but we'll never let them out of court. As I always told Mayor Riordan, either put us at the table, or we're going to be your worst enemy.
Supervisor, many critics of what former Mayor Riordan and the City of LA have done with the LAX Master Plan are amazed that the Mayor of El Segundo has become the regional leader on airport expansion, isolating LA. How did that happen?
It happened because the City of LA and the FAA were not inclusive. In fact, it's an absolute shame what they did to us.
When Jane Harman and I along with El Segundo Mayor Sandy Jacobs and then Mike Gordon first brought all these cities together-the South Bay, parts of LA, and the Palos Verdes peninsula-we decided that we couldn't just oppose things to oppose them; we had to find some common ground. We repeatedly asked the City of LA and the FAA to include us at the table, and they repeatedly ignored us. We weren't even getting agendas of task force meetings. They also ignored the fact that Palmdale, which has 17,000 acres set aside for an airport, Ontario, Norton and March-not to mention El Toro-were all saying they wanted additional air traffic.
Basically, we had a two-pronged push: one, people impacted by LAX in terms of quality of life issues, and two, people in outlying areas impacted economically by a lack of airport capacity. So sure, that coalition supported a resolution, and it became a very easy job to isolate LA.
Keep in mind that there were originally six alternate plans for the LAX Master Plan, and the one recommended in this EIR/EIS was not even one of the six. Then they hold one public hearing on the same day at the same time at three different locations to disperse the opposition. It's been an insult all the way.
LA County Supervisors were recently told by a consultant that the LAX Master Plan is "fatally flawed." Elaborate, if you would, on the findings of that study and how the Board reached such a conclusion.
I wasn't at all surprised. The entire process has been fatally flawed from the beginning. One, the plan they submitted was not one of the original six. Two, the dynamics of LAX and the region have changed since 1996, and the base-year studies have never been updated. Three, they dropped a benchmark air traffic study six days before the public hearing, which was never considered in the EIR/EIS. Four, the public engagement process was ridiculous, which is why we filed suit in Federal court-to extend the hearing process.
In general, we think they should start all over. There are certainly things in the EIR that need to be done in terms of ingress/egress, even if they only add one more plane or one more passenger. But they made a lot of mistakes.
Maybe they thought they were the "big bad wolf" and could eat us alive, that we wouldn't pay attention. But this is the third busiest airport in the United States on the smallest amount of land.
In February, MIR interviewed LAWA's outside counsel Carlyle Hall, who spoke about the assumption in the Master Plan that LAX's share of regional cargo and air passengers would drop from 75% to 60%. Is that assumption viable? Do you accept the thesis that LAX can assume a smaller share of the region's traffic even as it expands?
That's another thing that's fatally flawed. They may say they're decreasing percentage load, but it's certainly not reflected in their development plan or the EIR/EIS. According to those documents, it looks like they will be going beyond even the 79 MAP suggested in the SCAG plan.
One of their basic assumptions is that the air traffic is going to come-and we understand that. We're just saying it should be equally distributed.
In an earlier MIR interview, UCSD Professor Steve Erie said, "The problem with LAX is that it's historically done almost all the region's heavy lifting in terms of international passenger and cargo load. What LA needs to do is get Orange County and the Inland Empire-who have basically been free riders-to the table." Don, what do you suggest the City of LA and LAX do? Is that what the Regional Airport Authority is meant to encourage?
Exactly. The Authority brings all those people to the table, and all those people are saying, "We want more air traffic. We want the additional business."
Right now, LAX accommodates over 95% of Orange County's air cargo. Are you telling me we couldn't put an air cargo facility at one of the Air Force bases-Norton or March-and bring it back into Orange County? Likewise, passenger loads from Orange County flying out of LAX are said to be between 8 and 14 MAP, and all you have to do is talk to these folks to realize that they want the additional capacity.
In what could be a turning point for the City of LA's involvement, Mayor Hahn has indicated his willingness to work with us, and the new Council President, Alex Padilla who represents Westchester and Playa del Rey, is also on our Regional Authority.
In defense of the LAX plan, Carlyle Hall went on to say that there are safety issues if a plan is not adopted because LAX is functioning beyond its capabilities. "Right now," he asserts, "LAX accommodates 65 MAP, and under a ‘No Project' alternative, we project we'll go to 79 MAP in the next 15 years. Simply ‘doing nothing' will not make the projected increase in passengers disappear." Your response?
This is absolutely a public safety issue. The incursion rates and the near misses at LAX are some of the highest in the nation. All the recent reports released by the FAA and the press will tell you that the public safety threats at LAX are incredible. Again, it's because the airport is in such a large, urban area. There is simply no room to expand, and the traffic keeps coming.
No one is more concerned about public safety than I am. I was Mayor of Cerritos in 1986 when the Air Mexico plane went down because a small plane was in the wrong TCA. That was a life-changing experience for me personally, and I hope no one ever has to go through that again.
But if you look at the frequency and the capacity, and the urban setting of LAX, it's scary what could happen.
Is what Carlyle argues accurate-that a "No Project" alternative is worse than accepting what LAX is proposing?
Yes. Again, that's why the Authority is trying to advocate a solution: because no plan at all is worse than what they're proposing. There are things within the plan that have to be done whether we stay at 68 MAP or go to 79 MAP as SCAG has suggested or whatever, and many are for safety reasons.
Bringing this to a close, Don, what, as you envision it, does a workable regional air transportation plan for Southern California look like? What can this newly revived Regional Airport Authority accomplish in the next year or two to achieve a more balanced distribution of passenger and cargo growth?
I'd like to see the movement of air cargo isolated into one or two areas. Commuter air traffic-short hauls between LA and San Francisco for example-could be spread out in the Inland Empire amongst Ontario and Palmdale, and in Orange County at John Wayne. (I don't even include El Toro in the mix because of all the politics at the moment, but there are opportunities there as well.) As for international air traffic, most of it will have to stay at LAX, but Ontario could definitely take on some.
If we can get the Federal air space study accomplished, and are able isolate the most convenient and sensible airports for the region to use, people will use them. And the entire Southern California region will benefit.