Why Does LAX Feel Like a Cross Between a Rundown Bus Station and a Refugee Camp?

VOICES FROM THE PUBLIC SQUARE-Los Angeles International has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of airports. It gets no respect—and with good reason. Dated, overcrowded, and inefficient, LAX’s primary redeeming characteristic is the mild Southern California weather. When J.D. Power & Associates rated LAX as the third-worst airport in the U.S. in 2010, many Angelenos probably assumed there was a mistake and asked themselves: “Two airports are lower on the list?”

I’ve experienced LAX as a professional charter pilot and an ordinary passenger for more than a third of a century. And so I’ve squirreled away more than one LAX horror story. It’s not uncommon to fly my aircraft from Van Nuys (home to a huge general aviation airport) to LAX in five minutes—and then spend the next hour (or more) crawling those last few feet from the runway to the terminal in a long line of jets. Believe me, regardless of which side of the cockpit door you’re on, LAX is no fun.

Of course, most major airports—think La Guardia, Hartsfield, JFK, McCarran—seem like crosses between rundown bus stations and urban refugee camps, with masses of downtrodden travelers being herded to and fro by security apparatchiks and airline employees who’ve “had it up to here.” So why is it so bad? LAX, and other major U.S. airports, look and feel so bad because they suffer from the same affliction: a national lack of runway capacity.

LAX, and other major U.S. airports, look and feel so bad because they suffer from the same affliction: a national lack of runway capacity.

To grasp what’s truly behind the gridlock and delays that mark any authentic LAX experience, one must understand that airports are to airplanes as roads are to cars. Merely expanding the existing roads isn’t enough to make real change. That’s why all the usual fixes we see proposed for LAX—like adding a terminal or gates, or extending runways—won’t fix the airport any more than widening the 405 freeway through the Sepulveda Pass will alleviate West L.A. traffic jams.

Since we face a larger, more serious, and profoundly national infrastructure problem—a shortage of runways and airports—soliciting opinions on a solution for LAX is like asking how to fix a problematic train station when the entire system of tracks and switches is malformed.

Our airport is but one piece of an aviation infrastructure that has been allowed to shrink and decay most in the very areas where more capacity is needed. In other words, LAX is so overcrowded and sclerotic because no new airport capacity—here or elsewhere—is being developed. You wouldn’t expect to repair a clogged drain by allowing more water to back up in the sink, but for some reason we use that logic when it comes to airports.

Reliever airfields—airports that provide additional capacity to an area when the primary commercial airport is overburdened—have been shuttered throughout the LA area over a period of decades and now we’re seeing the result. Did you know that Inglewood, Huntington Park, Gardena, Culver City, and many other Los Angeles towns once hosted their own airports? Almost all of them are now gone, and those which remain have allowed residential and commercial development to encroach on the field to the point where any further expansion is impossible. Take a look at Santa Monica, Hawthorne, Compton, Whiteman, or virtually any other small airport in the Los Angeles area.

Long ago, when our population was a tiny fraction of what it is today, Los Angeles had a couple dozen active airports. But as the number of residents has risen, the airport count has fallen. It’s the exact opposite of what should be happening. Today, one of LAX’s primary relievers for general aviation traffic, Santa Monica Airport, is under threat of closure. If that happens, where do you suppose those airplanes will land?

Los Angeles is not alone. I live in Orange County, where we once had as many as 14 airports. Today only three remain: two civilian and one military. In 2002, voters had the opportunity to turn the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a commercial airport but declined to do so, allowing another much-needed series of runways to fall by the wayside. The same story is repeated across the country.

Self-proclaimed experts will tell you that the problem with our infrastructure is thousands of feet above our heads. Their argument: the reason American airports are so crowded is that the current ground-based air traffic control system can’t manage all our air traffic. That’s why the Federal government is spending billions of dollars to transition to a satellite-based air traffic control system referred to as “NextGen.” But I’ve been flying for decades and it’s extremely rare to see another airplane at altitude. It’s only the condensation trail emanating from the engines that visually reveals them at all.

A third grader could tell you that the sky is large and it’s our airports that are small. That’s where the real crush of traffic happens. We don’t lack airspace—we lack pavement.

This piece was originally published by City Watch LA

(Ron Rapp captains a Gulfstream IV-SP for one of L.A.’s largest charter companies. He’s also an aerobatic instructor and aircraft owner whose 7,000-plus hours have encompassed everything from experimental aircraft to crop dusting to tumbling through the air in his Pitts biplane. This piece was published originally at ZocaloPublicSquare.org … connecting people and ideas.)


  1. GA owner/pilots used to be able to ‘puddle-jump’ from all over LA/Orange Co. Places like Artesia, Norwalk, Bellflower, Fullerton (still there), Meadowlark in Surf City, and many others (I grew up in SE LA Co., so I’m most familiar with the above). But, every town that had some unproductive farmland used to have an air-strip, until that farmland was found to be best for growing houses.

  2. I quit going to LAX years ago.. I live near Long Beach Airport and John Wayne and will pay EXTRA for going out of each of them. Anything owned and operated by the democrat owned far left wing anti business climate of the LA city council will always be a nightmare and an accident waiting to happen.

  3. LA is America’s shining example of a SANCTUARY CITY! $1.6 billion invested in illegals annually…

  4. Great article showing the “Progressive” (actually regressive ) planners in their full stupidity laden glory. The Luddites and Leadites will soon be closing SMO, followed by Hawthorne and Torrance in their never ending zeal to bring more automobile traffic and development to the Southland. At that point my new airport will be PRC.

  5. “F”em !!! LA proclaimed themselves to be a sanctuary city, they deserve the third world status.

  6. They should close LAX, build a nice big new shiny airport on the other side of the mountains, serviced by Brown’s Choo-Choo, see that’ll fix the problem. So instead of one long wait you can have 3 or 5 and most likely spend an extra 10 hours getting from Fresno to LA doing it. Swell huh?

  7. Gotta Gedada Displace says

    If anyone is interested in the finances behind LAX’s current situation (ex- falling use of ONT, which LAWA also owns) beyond the (same old) political foibles that direct them, you can peruse here- (FWIW)

  8. Roger V. Tranfaglia says

    Same thing happened to Silicon Valley. Moffet Navel Air Station is now just a memory. Mountain View, Santa Clara County, Lockheed, the Feds had an oppertunity to continue using\leasing the airfield. But for whatever reason…………….

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