Project Runway

LAX is in desperate need of help. Can this woman save it?

Gina Marie Lindsey had vowed never to run another airport after ten tough years at Seattle-Tacoma International, and she certainly wasn’t interested in LAX, ranked by Zagat as the third-worst in the United States. Even one of L.A.’s airport commissioners calls the place a “Third World experience.” More than 24 years have gone by since the airport’s last face-lift: the construction of the Tom Bradley International Terminal and an upper-level departure road. More than 14 years have passed since the first of several ambitious master plans. In that time there have been only lawsuits, environmental impact studies, and lots of finger-pointing. When Lindsey heard the city was looking for someone to operate the airport, she said thanks but no thanks.

Except for one thing: It is LAX, which for all its faults is probably the most famous airport in the world (think of the movie shots of the four-legged Theme Building). Big, visible, and impossibly complicated, Los Angeles International is the airport equivalent of IBM or the Yankees. One night when Lindsey was driving home from work as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., her cell phone rang. It was Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, and he was hoping she had a few minutes to talk about the job. Little more than a year later, here she is. “My interest in giving it a try is aberrant,” she tells me. “I don’t think it’s logical.”

Her mission is to take down the kick me sign and make LAX a first-rate facility once again. That does not mean expansions into Santa Monica Bay or onto Manchester Boulevard. It means replacing such overreaching grand schemes with project-specific efforts. Because international service is the biggest priority, work has already started on renovating the dog-eared Bradley terminal, and there’s a plan to add a Midfield Concourse to the west that will feed passengers back to Bradley through an underground people mover. Lindsey also wants to renovate the other terminals so passengers aren’t forced to schlepp their bags down a staircase when the escalator doesn’t work. She intends to make generic newsstands and fast-food joints look like they belong in Los Angeles, not Atlanta. Further off are proposals to consolidate the rental-car offices into a single complex and possibly move the northernmost runway so that the new generation of wide-wing aircraft has an easier time taking off and landing safely. Alan Rothenberg, president of the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners—he came up with the “Third World” line—says, “By 2015, we should have something in place that is very, very good.”

Lindsey has plunged into the LAX quagmire with plenty of optimism—maybe too much. “She was not brought in here to be a visionary. She was brought in here to get LAX upgraded and made into a world-class airport,” says Ruth Galanter, the former Los Angeles City Council member who staunchly opposed expansion efforts in the 1990s and now works as a consultant on airport issues. “She’s very smart, she’s very focused, and she’s trying to figure out all the things that nobody told her she needs to know.” It isn’t easy. The airport is riven by factions: airlines, elected officials, community groups, business interests, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration. Each group has its own agenda. Longtime LAX watcher Steven Erie, a political scientist at UC San Diego, likens it to the West Bank conflict. The stalemate boils down to business interests who want more flights because it’s good for their bottom lines and nearby residents and business owners who want to put a cap on airport noise. “The costs are concentrated,” he says, “and the benefits are disbursed.”

Lindsey, who goes by Gina Marie, was born 54 years ago in Berkeley. She moved to Alaska with her family when she was nine (her father, she says, was “in pursuit of the last frontier”). She has been running airports for more than 15 years. The first was Anchorage International, where she became director after working her way up the ranks of the state’s transportation department. She grew interested not out of wanderlust but out of a fascination with taking large and very complicated puzzle parts—planes, passengers, regulations, planning, politics—and somehow making them fit. In 1993, Lindsey was hired at Seattle, where she orchestrated both the construction of a third runway and larger arrival areas. The runway was strongly opposed by community groups and is taking years to complete, far longer and at greater expense than she had expected.

She called it quits in 2004, a decision that was strongly influenced by family tragedy. A year earlier her son, Jeremy, a freshman at Tulane University in New Orleans, had disappeared after a Mardi Gras party. Lindsey, who was divorced from Jeremy’s father, and her husband, Tom Dow, offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to Jeremy’s whereabouts. Family and friends—even firefighters from Seattle—posted flyers in a one-and-a-half-mile radius of Tulane’s campus as well as in the French Quarter. At one point she hired private investigators. After two-and-a-half months, Jeremy’s body washed up near the Harvey Locks in New Orleans, where the Intracoastal Waterway meets the Mississippi. A coroner’s report found no signs of foul play.

Following a year or so of decompressing, Lindsey realized it was time for a different job in a different town. “I didn’t want to stay in the same house where I heard the same footsteps coming up the stairs that weren’t there anymore,” she says. “[Even today] I can walk down the street and see a lanky kid who has blond hair, and that can tip me right over” (a framed picture of Lindsey and her son sits on a credenza next to her desk at LAX). She and Dow both wound up in Washington, D.C. Then the Los Angeles job came up. When Lindsey showed little initial interest, the city conducted a search that produced three finalists—none of whom Villaraigosa considered strong enough. That led to a renewed courtship of Lindsey, and she became convinced that city officials really wanted to turn things around. She was hired in June 2007 at $305,015 a year, one of the city’s highest salaries.

As a veteran of airport wars, Lindsey knows not to overpromise. “I’m trying to demonstrate that we’re changing things, that we’re moving,” she tells me in her spacious corner office at the Clifton A. Moore Administration Building, not far from Terminal 1. Wearing a light orange jacket, a patterned scarf, and slacks, she presents the kind of friendly and accessible public face that LAX has been lacking for years. (A communications major in college, she had early ideas about becoming the next Barbara Walters but changed her mind upon discovering that the Anchorage TV stations paid less than $1,000 a month.) She lays out the basic challenge: attempting to remake the airport while still operating the airport. And not just any airport but the world’s fifth busiest, where much of what happens—weather delays, overbooked planes, security mandates—is out of her control. Often that leaves Lindsey working on the edges—making sure, for example, that her maintenance crews don’t shut down a rest room during spring break. “I’m working and sleeping, and that’s pretty much it,” she says. Lindsey lives in a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Playa Vista, while her husband, still in Washington, flies out every other weekend. She’s very much an L.A. newbie, getting a kick out of living so close to the beach—not to mention watching the wide-bodies approach the north runways.

After a year, Lindsey admits that it’s been hard to get a handle on the job, with its maze of politics and logistics. Formally she is executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, an umbrella agency that manages not only LAX but also the city’s satellite airports in Ontario, Van Nuys, and Palmdale. All told, LAWA has 3,700 employees, from police to janitors to administrators. At LAX Lindsey’s people are scattered across 15 locations. It can be difficult to figure out even the simple stuff, such as who does what, let alone untangle the bureaucracy. She gets to work at seven and usually isn’t back home until nine (toward the end of the week she switches from decaffeinated to caffeinated soy lattes). It’s a learn-as-you-go process, which has her occasionally dropping by offices unannounced. “I don’t know whether I’m building belief or not,” Lindsey says. “But I’m trying.”

Her overriding problem is having too many things to do at once. They include streamlining LAWA’s cumbersome structure; developing a capital improvement program that lays out projects, costs, and priorities; and working with airlines on how best to fund the work. She has a chance to clear this last hurdle only because of an interim agreement with major carriers that have sued the agency over jacked-up landing fees. Both sides have until the end of the year to work out future funding and then settle on a permanent arrangement.

Just as difficult is changing the culture at LAWA, where the meaning of the term “high priority” is sometimes in the eye of the paper pusher. “How long does it take us to get a procurement out?” Lindsey asks. “Why does it have to go to 12 different departments and everybody has to sign off on it, and why is it sitting in somebody’s in box for five weeks before they do their checkoff?” LAWA also has a problem with paying its bills, which means that many companies won’t do business with the airport. That makes it hard to get competitive bids. “For me to be patient,” she says, “is something I have to talk to myself about every night.”

Behind the wheel of his Honda Civic, Michael DiGirolamo is driving on one of the LAX taxiways, pointing out international flights that have just come in. As a deputy executive director, he can go most anywhere on the airfield, and after an hour of cruising the north and south sides with him, I start to realize how small the place is. Denver International sits on 33,000 acres; LAX covers only 3,500 acres, and most of that is spoken for. Building the Midfield Concourse will require removing an American Airlines hangar and several other buildings. Constructing an adjacent taxiway will mean relocating an employee parking lot. Doing excavation work for the people mover will likely turn up ancient utility or sewer lines, and there’s no telling how much that will cost to clear.

Not that there’s any choice. When DiGirolamo turns into the packed Bradley gate area, it’s clear that there are too many planes for too few spaces. “Air New Zealand came in this morning and will go back out to Auckland tonight,” he says, driving past the 747-400. “This one is coming in from Tokyo. You have two Korean flights from Seoul.” The burly DiGirolamo looks as if he could start pulling bags from one of those huge aircraft even as he reels off flights and destinations. He explains that from their time of arrival, planes are allowed three hours to sit at a Bradley gate. After that they must be moved. If Bradley has no available gates, arriving planes are parked at a remote location near a Coast Guard station, where passengers climb into buses and ride to customs and immigration.

For years LAX has told international carriers to just deal with the tight fit. Planes, however, are about to get much bigger—the Airbus A380, in particular, is a double-deck, wide-body, four-engine monster that seats more than 500 people. The aircraft is too large to fit into a normal gate, and airlines aren’t thrilled about having to park at some far-flung spot. With Qantas expected to begin A380 service between Sydney and LAX in October, the airport has jury-rigged two Bradley gates to handle the bigger load. The long-term answer is the Midfield Concourse and more gates on the back end of Bradley itself.

International flights generate big money. Over the course of 2006, the average daily transoceanic round-trip from LAX added $623 million to the local economy and supported 3,120 jobs, according to a study prepared for the Los Angeles County Economic Develop-ment Corporation. Given the slumping dollar, overseas visitors could be one of the few economic bright spots in the next year or two. Of course, airport administrators in San Francisco and Las Vegas are thinking the same thing. They’ve already grabbed some post-9/11 market share from LAX (Los An-geles and Miami were the only cities to see a drop in international passengers between 2000 and 2006).

At the same time, the airlines are threatening to take more of their flights elsewhere if LAX doesn’t improve. To some extent it’s a bluff. Airlines need service to L.A. because it is a major U.S. destination, no matter how bad the airport is. Lindsey knows that, but she also worries that a certain percentage of travel through Los Angeles isn’t necessarily destined for Los Angeles. “If we do not get our facilities modernized very quickly, we will lose market share,” she says. “Qantas made it very clear to us that if their A380s don’t have contact gates [attached to a terminal], they’re going to San Francisco.” Indeed, LAX is soliciting carriers to launch or expand service. For the first time there’s a flight five days a week from L.A. to Rome. Air France now flies to London’s Heathrow. Service from L.A. to Dubai begins in the fall, and there’s talk about nonstops to India next year. The idea is to take advantage of the modernizing. Paul Haney, a LAWA deputy executive director, says, “We have to strike while the iron is hot to get these carriers lined up, so when these facilities come on-line we will have the business to support it.”

Is this modernization, though, which the neighbors have signed off on, or expansion, which they’ve been fighting? Villaraigosa insists that the long-range objective is to regionalize air service to Ontario and elsewhere. The emphasis on international flights at LAX could speed that up. Lindsey figures that new construction to accommodate those flights will require the airlines to shell out more in fees, and as fees increase, a place like Ontario will become more attractive to domestic carriers. One problem: Not many people want to fly out of Ontario. It’s too far away, especially when traffic is bad, and fares are not low enough to justify the extra travel time required. Some folks even confuse it with the Canadian province.

The truth is, people like LAX—at least they consider it a convenient departure point—because of its proximity and flight selection. “For those of us who are regular travelers, the things that are otherwise disadvantages are advantages,” says Rothenberg, the airport commission president. “The compactness is great. It isn’t like some of the other airports, where it takes ten minutes to go from one gate to another. If you know your way around, it’s boom, boom—you’re in and out.”

Lindsey realized early on that  the place needed to run more efficiently. There was little logic, for example, in having the airport operations person be in charge of public relations. She also needed some new faces. An early arrival was Michael Collins, on leave as executive vice president of LA Inc., the city’s convention and visitors bureau. Collins has become a consigliere, schooling her on L.A. politics and business (his office is next to hers). In addition, she has hired Stephen Martin, former director of finance at Boston’s Logan Airport, to be her chief operating officer, as well as two senior executives she worked with in Seattle. The changes have resulted in demotions, promotions, and reassignments. “There was some angst,” she concedes. “Whenever there’s change, there will always be those who are not happy with it.” When I ask a longtime LAWA official about the restructuring, he sighs. “Look, I’ve worked for five executive directors. We’re hoping that six months from now it’ll be a lot calmer. Right now there’s a lot of upheaval and concern,” he says. “But there is a level of excitement.”

Lindsey relies on her own entrepreneurial style—as in, forget organization charts, we’re all in this together, and we have lots of work to do. If you roll up your sleeves, you’ll succeed; if you’re a clock-watcher, you won’t. She makes it a point not to sit at the head of the table at meetings, choosing a place somewhere in the middle and encouraging debate. Of course, LAWA is a bureaucracy, and many of its civil service employees have seen more than their share of executive directors. Some say Lindsey’s expectations won’t be met, and they wonder whether she will grow frustrated. There is a lot that could go wrong, including construction delays, funding squabbles, environmental snags, and an upcoming battle over whether to move the north runway 340 feet farther north. Business groups and the airline industry are pushing the proposal to enhance safety and better accommodate wide-body aircraft such as the A380. Community groups say it’s an unnecessary intrusion on nearby homes and businesses. If the runway isn’t moved, however, it could hinder plans for more international flights.

Whatever happens will likely drag out for years, perhaps too many for Lindsey. She doesn’t see this as a short-term job, but when I press her about the future, she says, “The honest answer is, I don’t know. I am totally open to staying here as long as I can.” When I ask whether she realistically expects to be running things in, say, six years, she says, “Probably not,” and then mentions the possibility of a part-time or consulting role. Her husband will retire in a few years, and they’re building a home just outside Ukiah. By 2014, she might have had her fill of LAX, even assuming the mayor, whoever he or she is, still wants her around. But she isn’t really thinking about 2014—not when there are airlines, neighbors, and politicians to worry about, and her to-do list keeps growing by the day.

Photograph by Michael Kelley