Is the Runway at LAX Falling Apart?

A lawsuit contends that Los Angeles' $250 million runway has structural problems that could disrupt future flight operations at the nation's third-busiest airport.
by | October 18, 2013 AT 3:00 AM
According to a city lawsuit filed against companies responsible for the work, the quality of the runway at LAX could disrupt flight operations. flickr user Horia Varlan

By Dan Weikel

A $250-million runway at Los Angeles International Airport, rebuilt six years ago, is riddled with construction defects, including cracks, exposed steel reinforcing bars and deteriorating concrete, according to city officials.

The mounting problems, including the runway's failure to meet Federal Aviation Administration construction standards, could disrupt future flight operations at the nation's third-busiest airport, according to a city lawsuit filed against companies responsible for the work.

The city says it will be forced to prematurely reconstruct the 2 { miles of pavement, a potentially complex and disruptive undertaking that would require rerouting air traffic to other runways. Typically, a commercial runway has a life span of 20 to 25 years. Located on the south side of the airport complex near the city of El Segundo, the runway continues to be used for takeoffs and landings. LAX officials said it poses no immediate danger. "Maintenance, engineering and airport operations staffs will continue to monitor the condition of the runway to ensure it remains safe for aircraft operations," Nancy Castles, an airport spokeswoman, said Thursday. FAA officials said they also were monitoring the condition of the runway, known as 25 Left, which handles up to 500 arrivals and departures a day.

In the lawsuit filed last week in state court, the city attorney's office alleged the runway "is unfit for its intended purpose and the city will incur ongoing consequential property damage and economic losses as a result of the deficiencies."

Some pieces of concrete have flaked or broken off, according to the lawsuit. One LAX source familiar with flight operations, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said he has noticed unusual amounts of debris being stirred up on the runway by landing aircraft.

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Jon Russell, a safety expert with the nation's Air Line Pilots Association, expressed concern that material from the runway, should it continue to deteriorate, might break loose and be sucked into a plane's jet engine, causing serious damage.

The contractors named in the lawsuit are R&L Brosamer, HNTB Corp., CH2M Hill Inc. and a joint venture involving Tutor-Saliba Corp. and O&G Industries Inc.

Public works contracting executive Ron Tutor, who headed the Tutor-Saliba construction firm that performed part of the runway work, now leads the firm Tutor-Perini, which was recently hired to construct the first Central Valley section of track for the California high-speed rail project. Brosamer, a highway builder, is now part of Walsh Construction.

Officials with the Tutor and Walsh firms could not be reached for comment. HNTB, which provided consulting and engineering services, and CH2M Hill, the project's construction manager, said they do not discuss pending litigation.

Officials for Los Angeles World Airports also declined to elaborate on the allegations in the lawsuit. However, airport Commissioner Jackie Goldberg, a former state assemblywoman and onetime Los Angeles City Council member, said she hoped the lawsuit could be settled relatively quickly. The city is seeking unspecified damages, attorneys' fees and costs of litigation.

The runway opened in April 2007, part of a $338 million package of safety enhancements that included a new south area taxiway to help reduce runway incursions by planes moving about on the ground. From 2000 to 2003, LAX reported the highest number of incursions in the nation.

To make room for the taxiway, the south runway was demolished and rebuilt 55 feet closer to El Segundo. About $108 million in FAA grants helped pay for the project.

In addition to improving safety, airport officials said the reconfigured layout would allow LAX to better handle the next generation of large aircraft, such as the giant Airbus A380. The lawsuit alleges that construction and concrete defects also are present in other parts of the south airport complex, including improvements to the runway overpass at the Sepulveda Boulevard Tunnel.

City attorneys contend the concrete mixtures did not meet contract specifications or conform to acceptable methods for placing and finishing concrete. Typically, concrete is inspected, sampled and tested throughout the construction process to ensure that mixtures are correct and dry properly.

(c)2013 Los Angeles Times