Since the City of Los Angeles started working on the LAX Master Plan in the early 1990s, the constituencies to whom the decision-makers paid attention to were: The airlines, the communities surrounding LAX who were concerned about traffic and noise, and the labor unions whose members would obtain high-paying jobs to perform the massive construction job.
Given the two stakeholders favoring the upgrade and possible expansion were motivated by the prospect of pecuniary gain (although the airlines were conflicted, because they were also on the hook for paying for it), and the constituency who opposed it could credibly portray themselves as victims, the paradigm of “the people against the powerful” got attached to this issue, and still is.
I was part of the PR campaign for the LAX Master Plan for three years, from 1995-8. I and others tried to figure out how to get the real stakeholders to weigh in — the millions of Angelenos who use the airport every year. The point of upgrading LAX was, after all, to make the increasingly overcrowded airport more efficient, convenient and safer.
But there were limits on what a city-funded campaign could legally do. We could educate the public about the environmental review process, but we could not advocate for a particular solution without increasing the city’s vulnerability to lawsuits attacking the whole EIR process. Some labor leaders joined with a few business-community advocates to try to create an independent, non-profit advocacy group, but there was not enough interest in it to get a visible campaign funded. We had a well-attended, widely covered event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce that seemed to galvanize the business community, but in the end, other issues mattered to them more, and they didn’t relish taking on the project’s foes. (This was about when I learned that the organized “business community” was not the same thing as the business sector, which generally was too busy with its own matters to participate in groups.)
And so, over the past decade, through the administrations of mayors Riordan and Hahn, the dance between the Los Angeles World Airports department and the surrounding communities has continued to a standoff. Two mayors have gotten elected in part by attacking the LAX Master Plan and promising a new plan. Two mayors have left office with their preferred plans left for dead.
The chimerical “regional approach,” in which airline traffic that wants access to LAX could be reassigned to other Southern California airports confuses things further because it injects an element of unreality in the debate. It takes a very complicated problem and makes it sounds simple. The Meanwhile, LAX just keeps getting older, more crowded, and less safe.
Our new mayor is poised to tackle the problem again. But while the roles are now played by different actors, it has been hard for me to see what’s going to make this go-round any more successful.
Until I read The Advice Goddess. That’s right, Amy Alkon, the LA-based syndicated columnist who also writes a blog. Here’s what the Goddess had to say about LAX:
I’m sitting in the Westin Hotel at the Northwest Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport. I flew in for the weekend to be with my boyfriend, who’s in town for his work — but I’d fly to Detroit just to stay at this hotel and never leave the airport.
The new Northwest terminal here is great — airy, with high ceilings, and filled with light, with cool stores, and giant TV screens playing CNN while you’re waiting for your flight. Contrast that with LAX, where I waited for my flight in a dark, smelly, cave-like gate area, littered with candy wrappers and newspapers, with too few of the dismal brown vinyl seats to accomodate all the passengers. Ellis Island with wings!
In Detroit, there are lots of places to sit throughout the airport — in all the places it would seem like a person might want to sit down. After a recent flight to LAX, I was nauseated and needed to sit down, but there was not a bench to be seen in baggage claim. I was forced to pile my stuff on the floor and lean on it while my boyfriend waited for my bags. Again dismal and totally inhospitable. And LA’s supposed to be a vacation spot?
Oh yeah, and in Detroit there’s Wifi available throughout the terminal. I got off my plane in the morning, opened my computer, logged into my T-Mobile account, posted three blog items, and toddled off to baggage claim. Zilcho at LAX, although there are a few uncomfortable, usually-broken connect-to-the Internet phones here and there.
I don’t have time to go to a bunch of meetings, and Detroit does a lot of stuff stupidly, but the new terminal here is just great — and worth copying inch for inch, as much as possible.
This is exactly the kind of thing we never heard at the public hearings I attended in the mid-1990s. It is the kind of perspective the local newspapers and other media never presents. The case for upgrading LAX was always made by airport officials and the FAA, as if they somehow were the beneficiaries. The presentations were dry and relied mostly on numbers and trend charts. Counterposed with angry homeowners armed with anecdotes about sleep-deprivation and ruined birthday parties, it was no contest, and no wonder that elected officials always lined up against whatever the reigning Master Plan idea was at the time.
The fact is, LAX needs to be fixed because it has become a civic embarassment from the perspective of every Angeleno who travels. Here’s one of the comments Amy got to her post:
My biggest complaint about LAX (aside from the crappy and seat-deficient waiting areas) is how long it takes to get checked luggage. On a return trip from Denver last month, we waited almost an hour for our luggage! Compare that to JFK (an airport that certainly has it’s share of problems), where every single time my luggage is circling the carousel when I get there.
Not to say flyers are callous about the homeowners who have to hear the jets fly over them. But common sense says this problem can be dealt with through compromise, so long as neither side gets too greedy. Common sense also says there is no connection between jet noise and the issues that bug travelers. It’s not a win-lose situation.
Alkon’s thoughts were initially conveyed to Westchester/Venice-area Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who, she says, asked for input from constituents. I can’t find this request on his councilmanic website, but I’ll take Amy’s word for it. If you want to write the councilman, his e-mail address is email@example.com. Rosendahl, of course, campaigned for his council seat on a promise to find a “regional solution.” I wish him good luck with that, but I hope he will be honest about the fact that it won’t be easy to do and will take decades; and acknowledge that changes to LAX must be allowed to proceed while the regional solution is negotiated.
What I find most exciting about reading Alkon’s writings is that it demonstrates how blogs can potentially change a political dynamic that his been stuck in the mud for too long. LA bloggers should all write about LAX. Moreover, the problems at LAX are one good reason to start your own blog. In the near future, smart politicians will search for blogs originating from their districts, or covering issues they are associated with, to discern public opinion, instead of relying on “spokesmen” for special interests. If enough people blog about LAX’s problems, I suspect the political dynamics of this issue will change.
In politics and PR, there is an expression — the “bigger megaphone.” The elected officials, the business organizations, media personalities, and well-organized groups — they had the bigger megaphone, so they had a disproportionate effect on the debate on any issue. Maybe they still have the bigger megaphone, but the unorganized who don’t have access to the media or their names on a group’s letterhead — now you have a voice, too.