Key choice for crunch on airports

Expand big hubs or build more regional airports? Billions of dollars are at stake.

Reeling from two summers of record congestion and delays, America's airports are at a crossroads - and in the cross hairs.

Amid dramatically rising demand for more flights by travelers and cargo companies, airports are under unprecedented pressure to improve service.

Already, 80 of the nation's busiest airports have earmarked $80 billion to boost facilities between now and 2020. The federal government, meanwhile, has doubled its annual funding for runways, terminals, and other improvements from $1.9 billion last year to more than $3 billion through 2003.

Now, in hearings this week before the aviation subcommittee of the US House - and in dozens of local battles nationwide - activists and legislators are clashing over what is the best way to use that money.

At issue are two different views of the future. One would expand existing major metro airports in an attempt to provide comprehensive service and lower prices. The second would incorporate little-used existing airfields, abandoned military sites, and new mini-airports to create a regional network of airports closer to suburban citizens.

The decisions will shape travelers' experiences for decades to come.

"Two forces are absolutely converging at this moment in the history of American aviation," says David Schaffer, counsel to the aviation subcommittee of the US House, which is holding hearings this Thursday. "The country's airport infrastructure ... is hurtling toward total gridlock while the money to ease that is being earmarked. The question is how to invest the money."

In many places, the public outcry over expanding major hubs is forcing a fresh look at the issue. From Boston to Chicago, San Francisco to St. Louis, Detroit to Atlanta, local residents are banding together to question airports looking for more elbow room.

"There is not an airport in the country entertaining ideas of expanding that is not encountering the opposition of the local neighborhoods which are going to be impacted," says Mike Gordon, mayor of El Segundo, a neighborhood adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), the nation's third largest airport.

The L.A. experience

Indeed, Los Angeles is a case study in the larger American debate over airport expansion. City officials hope to proceed with a $12 billion expansion at LAX - a plan seen as crucial to securing Los Angeles's place as a Pacific Rim trading capital.

But Mayor Gordon is concerned. There are the obvious complaints: Thousands of weekly flights already rattle neighborhood windows, leave soot on homes and gardens, and create serpentine snarls of traffic.

But other issues, he says, are important, too. Safety, for one. And also basic fairness, considering most airport expansions take place over the objections of the low-income and minority communities, like El Segundo, that surround them.

Along with 88 other local mayors, Gordon is pushing an alternative that would utilize 11 existing regional airports. Given the demographic trend in Southern California, some say that plan is the wisest choice.

"The great majority of growth in population in southern California will be in San Bernardino County, not Los Angeles," says Kathy Davis, San Bernardino County supervisor. "We have the room, desire, and the population for new airports. Why cram more runways 80 miles away and make our residents get up at 3 a.m. and pray they will make their 7 a.m. flight from LAX?"

Experiences elsewhere suggest that Los Angeles would be smart to take area residents' wishes and concerns into account.

In San Francisco, the airport added a new runway only after extensive discussions with surrounding communities, and thereby silenced many critics.

"For 20 years, airport and city officials have included neighbors at every phase of planning over traffic questions, noise abatement, air quality, everything," says Dennis McGrann, executive director of NOISE (National Organization to Insure a Sound-controlled Environment), a national coalition of groups organizing residents who want more say in planning. "Unfortunately this is not characteristic of the rest of the country."

Keep residents involved

By contrast, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport battled residents for two years to add a new runway. It now has official clearance to go ahead, but some disgruntled citizens say they will fight to the US Supreme Court.

"The city of St. Louis has given us no input on this whatsoever," says Bridgeton, Mo., Mayor Conrad Bowers, who is leading the fight to stop the runway. "This is a blind expansion because officials somewhere else think it will be a great economic engine for the region, but they are not weighing what it will do to quality of life."

To some degree, LAX officials have tried to listen to critics and embrace their own regional plan. Airport officials have scaled back some designs and plans to lessen the possible impacts on neighboring communities.

"There is no question that we have to reckon with the opposition," says Lydia Kennard, spokeswoman for Los Angeles World airports, which runs LAX and two regional airports. "A lot of our concepts are under refinement, and we are trying to be directly responsive to these issues."

From a business standpoint, though, there are compelling reasons to simply expand one major hub. Airlines increasingly moved to the hub concept after deregulation in 1979 because it cut maintenance costs, eliminated unprofitable routes, improved service, and reduced fares.

"After deregulation, many airlines felt it made sense for cost reasons to concentrate operations in major cities," says Holly Arthur, spokeswoman for the American Association of Airport Executives in Alexandria, Va.

Pricing game

In fact, airlines say ticket prices would soar if they were forced to expand operations to little-used airports.

"Many airlines which are barely profitable at crowded airports where business is good are loath to start operations at outlying airports, where business is not going to be as good," says Larry Kiernan, airport planner for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington.

Critics, however, say airlines are just fighting to keep the status quo and are not worried about what's best for consumers. Moreover, as more airlines merge, they will potentially decrease competition and have more leverage to keep things as they are.

"The larger carriers try to restrict growth of smaller regional airports by overpricing fares at non-hub airports," says Mayor Gordon. "That forces consumers to use their hubs, and creates a false need to expand existing airports, which have no more elbow room."

The regional-airport model does work, proponents say. For an example, they point to the nation's capital.

"When [Washington Dulles] was built in the 1960s, it was a joke in the middle of nowhere that nobody used," says Mr. Schaffer of the aviation subcommittee. "Now there are more people using it than use National, far closer to the city."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.