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Los Angeles Unveils Plan to Terror-Proof LAX Airport - 2003-07-10

Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn has unveiled a modernization plan for the city's airport, one of the world's busiest. The official says the $9 billion project would make the facility nearly terrorism-proof. Critics are skeptical and say the benefits don't justify the cost.

Los Angeles International Airport serves 56 million passengers a year, which makes it the world's fifth busiest airport. But the facility, often referred to by its airport code of LAX, has not had a major upgrade for 20 years.

Concerns over a possible terrorist incident have revealed the airport's flaws, including a layout that situates the terminals along a u-shaped road, providing easy access for passengers, as well as terrorists. The potential danger was brought home four years ago after customs agents in Washington state discovered a car entering from Canada loaded with explosives. The driver, an Algerian national, later said he planned to blow up LAX.

The new airport plan would reduce the threat by keeping private vehicles off the access road and locating the parking lots and check-in area three kilometers from the terminals. Passengers would reach their airline gates by train.

Mayor Hahn unveiled the plan on Wednesday.

"I'm delivering on my pledge to the people of Los Angeles to make LAX the safest and most secure airport in America," he said.

However, a report by the Rand Corporation, a California think tank, says the airport plan is flawed. It says by concentrating passengers in central areas, casualties could be high in a terrorist attack. But the report notes that earthquakes pose more of a risk in Los Angeles than terrorist incidents, and that airports in general are safe places.

Others question the economic benefit to the city. In response to neighborhood residents who oppose airport expansion, Mayor Hahn proposes to cap the airport's growth at 78 million passengers a year, up from a peak of 67 million in 2000. He would decrease the number of airline gates and urge airlines to make greater use of other regional airports.

The renovation project would provide a short-term boost to the local economy with its many construction jobs, but a city analysis says a modernized airport would add nothing to the economy after construction is finished. Local businesses want an expanded airport, as well as a safer one, and hope the renovation will enlarge the facility to handle more passengers and cargo.