Business Update with Mark Lacter

How airlines at LAX handled the airport shooting last week

Police say TSA agent Gerardo Hernandez was shot and killed last Friday at the base of the escalators of LAX Terminal 3, and not at the checkpoint gates.  Paul Ciancia is accused of killing Hernandez and wounding several others.  Ciancia remains hospitalized in critical condition.

Steve Julian: Business analyst Mark Lacter, how did the airlines respond to shooting and its aftermath?

Mark Lacter: Generally pretty well, Steve, considering that the airport was effectively closed for several hours on Friday, and most of Terminal 3 was out of commission until Saturday afternoon.  You know, there's always this precarious balance in operating airlines and airports, even in the best of circumstances.  Just so many flights coming in and going out, and so many thousands people using the facility at any given time - and it really doesn't take much to upset the balance.  So, when you have something horrific take place and you see all those travelers stranded outside the terminals, the ripple effects are enormous - not just at LAX but all over the country.

Julian: More than a thousand flights were either canceled or delayed on Friday.

Lacter: And, there was a further complication because the airlines flying out of Terminal 3 are not the legacy carriers like United, American, and Delta that have all kinds of resources, but smaller operations with less flexibility.  It's not like there's an empty aircraft just sitting in a hangar waiting to take passengers wherever they want to go.  Actually, the airlines have gotten better at arranging re-bookings when there's a snowstorm or some other emergency that gives them advance warning.  But obviously, there was no advance warning last Friday, so the carriers needed to improvise in handling passengers whose flights were cancelled.

Julian: What did they do?

Lacter: One step was waiving the fees normally charged to re-book flights (and that's gotten to be a pretty penny).  Another was waiving the difference in the price of the original ticket and the re-booked ticket.  But, the policies varied according to the airline, and we heard about travelers not receiving hotel or food vouchers, or having to buy a brand new ticket on another airline if they wanted to avoid the wait - and that can be expensive.  Which raises another issue: planes tend to be completely full these days because airlines have been cutting back on the number of flights.  And that can be a problem if you're taking a route that doesn't have too many flights in the first place.  So, it gets really complicated.

Julian: Why do you think we haven't we heard more horror stories from passengers?

Lacter: Well, look at the cities that the airlines in Terminal 3 fly to - New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas.  They're all served by several other carriers.  L.A. to New York, in particular, is one of the busiest routes in the world, which means that it's also one of the most competitive.  So, even if your flight was cancelled, there's a good chance you'd be able to find space by Saturday (which is normally a slower day for air travel).  This is a big reason, in general, why people like LAX.

Julian: Why don't other local airports handle more of the load?

Lacter: You might remember a few years ago local officials were promoting something called "regionalization" - the idea was that as LAX maxed out on the number of passengers it was allowed to handle each year, then other airports would make up the difference - places like Ontario, Bob Hope in Burbank, and John Wayne in Orange County.

Julian: Right, and they talked about easing traffic congestion by spreading around the flights.

Lacter: Well, regionalization never happened because, first of all, passenger levels at L.A. International didn't come close to maxing out.  But, more importantly, because the airlines decided that using LAX was more efficient for everything from handling baggage to arranging international connections.  So, through the first nine months of the year, passenger traffic at LAX is up 4.2 percent from a year earlier, while at Ontario traffic was down 9.3 percent.  And, we've seen that John Wayne, Bob Hope, and Long Beach are all struggling.  Of course, the challenge at a busy place like LAX is making it as safe as possible, and that will no doubt become a priority in the weeks ahead.

Mark Lacter writes for Los Angeles Magazine and pens the business blog at LA Observed.com.


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