May 16, 2003
Study knocks Hahn’s LAX
RENOVATIONS: Harman says she won’t back proposed airport changes because of security risks. Report angers mayor’s staff.
By TOBY ECKERT and Ian Gregor
Mayor James Hahn’s proposed $9 billion Los Angeles International Airport renovation would do little to improve security and could create new vulnerabilities to terrorism at the sprawling facility, according to a new study commissioned by Rep. Jane Harman.
In a letter to Hahn that Harman released Wednesday, the South Bay Democrat said she will not support the mayor’s plan unless it includes “significant security improvements.”
Hahn representatives were visibly angry with Harman for releasing what Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards described as a “premature analysis” based on insufficient information.
“The mayor is very disappointed,” Edwards said.
Harman in her letter took aim at the plan’s centerpiece: moving all passenger check-in, pick-up and baggage-check facilities to the Manchester Square neighborhood more than a mile east of LAX and using a tram to shuttle passengers to the terminal. Hahn said the facility would insulate the airport from a terrorist attack by eliminating most private vehicle access to the terminal area.
But Harman, pointing to the study by the Santa Monica-based RAND research firm, said scattering the airport facilities would require more security personnel to protect a larger area, and that the tram could become a tempting terror target and impede evacuation of the terminal in case of an attack or other emergency.
“I think the hurdles are high for an off-site plan like this to improve security based on what RAND has written,” she said in an interview.
Calls study premature
Edwards, however, said the RAND study was based on only a simple schematic diagram and a fact sheet. Before requesting a study, Harman should have waited for Hahn to release his LAX master plan, which will include thousands of pages of data and analysis that would have provided the research company with more thorough information, he said.
“Jane Harman ought to make better use of her time by helping get federal reimbursements for millions of dollars in security costs” the airport and city have borne as a result of 9-11, Edwards said. The mayor expects to release his full LAX plan in early summer. Valid or not, the RAND study could be a powerful weapon for opponents of Hahn’s plan, who welcome anything that supports their contention that it’s folly to spend billions of dollars on renovations that they maintained would have few security benefits. Some critics — including nearby residents and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles — have in fact raised many of the same concerns as the RAND report.
“That has been my concern all along that they have made the facilities in the central terminal area — the terminals, the runways, the aircraft, etc. — secure, but transferred the security dangers out into the surrounding community,” said Westchester resident Danna Cope, who sits on a task force that is studying Hahn’s plan.
Waters also was pleased by the study’s conclusions.
“The study confirms what many of us felt — that this doesn’t provide more security but rather creates more problems in the community,” Waters said in an interview. “I’m hopeful the mayor will take this study to heart and conclude that the Manchester Square project is not in the best interest of the community.”
Harman has called for dispersing more air traffic to other airports in the region, a move Hahn supports and that the RAND study speculated could make LAX a less tempting target for terrorists. Indeed, the study concluded that the only “slightly positive” security benefit of Hahn’s plan would be to constrain LAX to its current theoretical capacity of 78 million annual passengers and force airlines to seek out other facilities. No security improvements would result from the plan’s more expensive elements, such as reconfiguring the terminals, parking and ground transportation, the study said.
“The RAND analysis indicates that nothing in the master plan’s proposed reconfiguration would prevent future attacks of these types or provide adequate protections against a deadly small portable bomb or any of a number of other attacks commonly used in a congested environment like LAX,” Harman said in her letter to Hahn.
The eight-page report also cautioned against putting too much emphasis on the threat of terrorism, noting that an airline collision could result in more casualties. It also noted that airports have been safe places in recent decades and said terrorism concerns should not dominate airport planning discussions.
“Any reconfiguration of LAX should be judged primarily on how efficiently the airport will function and on the effects reconfiguration will have on the transportation and economy of Southern California,” the report said.
Harman emphasizes security
But Harman, as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has argued that any LAX master plan must stress security because terrorists have targeted the airport three times. She cited the 1980 bombing of an Air China luggage facility at the airport, a foiled 1999 al-Qaida bomb plot, and the July 4, 2002, shootings at an El Al ticket counter.
The RAND report said most terrorist attacks at airports since 1980 have involved relatively small explosives, resulting in 58 fatalities. Attacks using firearms, while more rare, have claimed the second-largest number of lives, 13.
The report concluded that the proposed renovation “could help limit damage caused by a vehicle bomb, but would not help limit damage caused by small bombs, and it could increase the time the airport is shut down by such attacks.”
The researchers said they were uncertain what effect the airport renovation would have on deterring or detecting such attacks, or attacks using small or large vehicle bombs.
They said the Manchester Square facility could become a target of small vehicle bombs since cars would still be able to drive near lines of people waiting to board trams to the terminal.
The report also noted that the renovation would boost the number of airport retail businesses that would have to be supplied by trucks. But, it added, “airports typically make poor targets for large vehicle bombs” because of their design.
Security at LAX could be improved in a number of ways, the researchers said.
Reducing lines and waiting times at ticket counters, security checkpoints and baggage claims would lower the number of potential targets and casualties from an attack.
Airport buildings could be reinforced with shatter-proof glass and support columns to minimize the effects of a bomb blast, and physical barriers like large planters could be used to separate vehicles from buildings or crowds.