Monday, July 11, 2005
Airfield’s Safety Issues Left Up in Air
The FAA and a pilots group have criticized Bob Hope Airport’s layout. A building moratorium thwarted plans to move terminal.
By Eric Malnic
The Los Angeles (CA) Times
An agreement earlier this year to place a 10-year moratorium on expanding or relocating the passenger terminal at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank leaves long-standing safety concerns unresolved. The deal between airport officials and the city of Burbank ended years of debate over whether to move the terminal, an idea that critics feared would result in more traffic, noise and pollution.P
But one reason the airport first considered moving the terminal was years of warnings by the Federal Aviation Administration that the building, erected in 1930, was too close to the intersecting runways and the planes parked near it.
Parts of the building are less than 350 feet from the centerline of a runway. FAA building standards call for a separation of at least 750 feet.
The FAA and others say greater separation would provide greater safety, but they stop short of saying the current situation is dangerous.
In a 1995 report, federal officials expressed “an extremely high level of concern . over the significant compromise of FAA runway separation standards inherent in the placement of the terminal.”
The worries center on the possibility that planes landing or taking off on nearby runways could experience mechanical problems that would cause them to veer into the terminal or the planes parked next to it.
“Our long-standing support for the relocation of the terminal was based on our interest in bringing the airfield up to current design standards,” FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey wrote to the airport authority in 2002. “However.. we believe that operations in the present location can continue safely in the future as in the past.”
Airport officials and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Assn., which represents Southwest’s cockpit crews, agreed.
Charles Lombardo, president of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, called the current situation acceptable.
“If we had our druthers, we’d make things safer and move the terminal,” he said. “But I don’t feel unsafe walking into that terminal.”
Ike Eichelkraut, president of the Southwest pilots union, said, “Adding an additional margin of safety is always appropriate, but in the meantime, it’s safe.”
But the Air Line Pilots Assn., which represents many of the other cockpit crews landing at Bob Hope, expressed more concern about the layout.
“When we push back from the gate, my wingtips are almost to the edge” of Runway 26, said John Russell, a United Airlines pilot and a regional safety coordinator for the pilots association.
“They clear planes to take off on that runway while we’re doing that,” said Russell, adding that on the other side of the terminal, “the exact same thing is true for Southwest for the planes that are landing on Runway 8. Any slight deviation and there’s the potential for a collision.”
Russell said that during a landing, if one engine doesn’t reverse, or the brakes fail on one side, or a tire blows, a plane could veer from the runway “and hit another plane, or boarding passengers, or the terminal itself.”
None of those things have ever happened. Burbank’s only major accident occurred March 5, 2000, when errors by the pilots and air traffic controllers caused a Southwest jet to crash land and skid off the end of Runway 8, seriously injuring two of the 137 passengers and the pilot. Forty-one passengers suffered minor injuries.
Over the years, the FAA has implemented special taxiing, takeoff and parking procedures at the airport, and plans are underway to build a new taxiway, all intended to enhance safety at and near the terminal by reducing congestion on the runways.
Bob Hope is the fifth-busiest airport in Southern California, serving 4.9 million passengers in 2004. Los Angeles International Airport, the area’s largest, served about 60 million in 2004.
Efforts to relocate the terminal at Bob Hope have been tangled for years in a web of lawsuits, politics, community protest and red tape.
A proposal to move the terminal to a nearby parcel of land owned by Lockheed Martin fell apart in 1985 when the U.S. Department of Defense objected to public use of the land, saying it was too close to top-secret manufacturing facilities. Problems with the environmental review process in the late 1980s scuttled plans for a move to another parcel.
In 1999, the airport authority purchased 130 acres from Lockheed, reaching a tentative agreement with Burbank to build a new terminal on the site. In return, the airport made several concessions to the city, including closure of the terminal between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
But the FAA opposed the deal, calling the proposed closure a de facto curfew, restricted under federal law. Without FAA approval, the tentative deal expired in May 2000.
Burbank voters then further complicated the negotiations by approving Measure B in 2000 and Measure A in 2001. Measure B required that any terminal construction deal would have to be approved by the voters, and Measure A prohibited the Burbank City Council from approving new airport construction without a mandatory curfew. A judge eventually declared Measure A unconstitutional, saying it violated state laws governing airports, elections and the environment.
In February 2003, the FAA’s Blakey, apparently exasperated over the years of litigation and political infighting, told local officials to get on with building the terminal or return federal money that had been provided for the project.
In June 2004, the airport authority gave up, drafting a tentative agreement that would place a 10-year moratorium on the construction project. Two months later, the authority agreed to repay the FAA. The moratorium was approved by the authority and the City Council several months ago.
If no further agreements are reached during the moratorium, the remaining available property, held in trust, will be sold.
Although the compromise leaves the FAA’s concerns in limbo, officials hope it has calmed the political battle over the future of the terminal.
“There’s peace in our time. There’s detente,” Lombardo told reporters when the agreement was reached.