Hollywood-Burbank Airport Authority President Emily Gabel-Luddy on Award of Terminal Replacement Contract


After a two-decade long political war over the future of Hollywood Burbank Airport, on December 19th, the Hollywood-Glendale-Burbank Airport Authority awarded the Terminal Replacement Project, ElevateBUR, to the Holder, Pankow, TEC, Joint Venture (HPTJV). In her interview with VX News, Emily Gabel-Luddy, the President of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority (and former Mayor of Burbank), elaborates on the project’s contentious past and chronicles the detente achieved between the City of Burbank and the Airport Authority and the eventual stakeholder commitments that enabled this award, which marks a significant step forward for the terminal replacement project which is anticipated to open, “at long last,” in 2026.

Emily, in December, the Burbank Glendale Pasadena Airport Authority took a historic step and awarded a Design-Build Agreement for its replacement terminal. Address the context for the 14-gate replacement passenger terminal decision and elaborate on the significance of this award given the project’s long history.

Emily Gabel-Luddy: First of all, it is the most significant project in the airport's history. It is a remarkable fulfillment of a commitment to our community to move forward with a replacement passenger terminal. 

The story between Burbank and the airport itself stretches back more than 20 years. At one time in the past, the airport and the city were at war over the size of a possible new terminal. At that time, the proposal was a doubling of the gates/terminal which caused multiple problems and lawsuits. Ultimately, the residents of Burbank adopted a regulation that required a referendum to approve any potential new terminal. 

So, to arrive at that point of decision-making on December 19 has a whole range of history to it, including a seven-year development agreement executed in 2005 between the city of Burbank and the Airport Authority, which resulted in a détente. The airport promised not to go forward with any kind of plans and the city promised not to rezone the airport in any way. Everybody stood down at that time.

In the meantime, as we were approaching the expiration of that development agreement, the city staff and the airport staff began a working group to chart a path forward. As a result, the city and the airport agreed to a three-year extension through 2015. During that time, there were—as the City of Burbank’s outside legal counsel told me—hundreds of closed-session meetings over the negotiations between the city and the Burbank Airport for a new generation of peace. 

I was the mayor of the city and a council member during those times of negotiation. I had the privilege—and I will say, it was a privilege—to sit in and be part of that solution. 

The agreement between the airport and the city included  requiring a supermajority vote to permit any increase  in the number of gates at the terminal. More importantly, it included the mandate to replace this nearly century-old terminal with the same number of gates that it currently has, which is 14 gates. It is a replacement passenger terminal, not an expanded passenger terminal that requires additional gates. The actual square footage is a bit larger because now designed into it will be TSA clearances and other safety and security considerations. 

If any commission in the future, on the airport side, wanted to expand the number of gates in any way, it requires at least two votes from each representative city to enable that to happen. If two commissioners from any city said no, then it could not happen. That was a change in governance that frankly built-in significant protections for the Burbank community. 

The other commitment was that the replacement terminal would not get built with any city funds, any property tax, any sales tax, or any community tax. It gets built with the available funds that come to the airport through the FAA and other financing tools like federal infrastructure funding and bonds. 

With that, we took it to the voters. Measure B passed by  a 2:1 margin. We had a voter turnout of nearly 70 percent of the registered voters in the city. It was truly a very significant moment in the city's history to achieve that milestone. 

Fast forward to 2017, the vote was certified and the airport started to move forward. I was still on the council, and then COVID hit and everything shut down for 18 months to two years. Generally speaking, the only people in the airport during that time were all our first responders.  

Coming into May of last year, we hired a project management firm: Jacobs Engineering. They took what had been a significant delay in the process and moved it forward. Within one week, the project manager, Roger Johnson, moved this project into its first significant phase towards the award of the progressive Design-Build Team.

Within a week, the RFQ was released. A couple of months later, the five submittals were received from five different teams. The Authority and the staff agreed to a shortlist of three. Subsequent to that, an RFP was released to those three shortlisted teams. In October, all of their submittals were due. Over the month of November and part of December, there was a very robust interview process that was scenario-based. 

Out of that, the Holder, Pankow, TEC Joint Venture was selected as the number one team for this airport. Having reviewed the submittals, I think we got the absolute right team to do this spectacular job and hold our promise to our community, which is a replacement terminal with 14 gates, no taxpayer dollars. 

We're also committed to making sure that you can get off at the back of the plane. It is a much-beloved feature of our airport. To me, from my design studio days, this is bridging the past to the future. We bring in some of our history, and we can move it forward. 

Finally, I'll say that this project is all about safety and accessibility. This is because, as currently designed, the existing terminal is too close to the runway. In order to achieve the standard that's required for safety purposes, part of our improvements will be not only the replacement terminal, but making sure that the airfield and the taxiways are done in a way that comply with contemporary FAA standards. Above all, safety and accessibility are the objectives.

For our readers, who may not be as enmeshed in the Airport’s plans as the citizens of Burbank and yourself, what was the community’s chief concern regarding any effort to replace or expand the Burbank Airport? 

The fear was that it would bring a tremendous increase in flights. When you add more gates, you open up to more flights. That, in turn, would bring a tremendous amount of additional traffic into the city. That traffic wouldn't just go down Hollywood Way; it would find itself penetrating the city in other ways. 

Size alone was the significant reason that the residents pushed back on the 28-gate proposal.  They were absolutely right. This is a regional airport. It has what I call ‘mid-hops’ to different cities. The lengths of its runways, for readers who may not know, are constrained by state law. 

Adjusting old thinking of the 1990’s from ‘let's make this a huge new Valley LAX’ to ‘let's think about the best way to evolve this airport forward in a safe way,’ led to a rethink of what was ultimately desirable. So, the commitment is 14 to 14 gates.

In the 15-20 years of this planning process, new technology surely has allowed for a reduction in aircraft noise and pollution.  Are the arguments of 20 years ago less relevant?

One of the things that airlines are gravitating to is the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). This is a blended fuel that does not have as much environmental damage as current jet fuel. San Francisco airport right now is 100 percent using it. At the Burbank Airport, one of the general aviation operators has contributed, on their own, about 5 percent of SAF to the jet fuel that's stored on site. This is so that all the airlines use that fuel in some way. There's definitely a strong consciousness on the part of the airlines that they need to do better about matters of pollution. 

As we know from the last interview about Burbank, there are still some concerns about noise. We, as a commission, want planes up and out. We don't know exactly why there was a southern drift of the flight path, but there was. We still advocate for an up and out policy to move planes up into the air as quickly as possible and get them as high above residential areas as possible. 

In our Burbank community, the residential properties south of a runway, probably have the most noise. The FAA has provided, over the years, funding to insulate all of those homes from the externalities of plane noise. As well, planes are quieter than they were years ago.

Elaborate on the Airport’s investments in ground access to connect the airport to more users in  Metro LA. 

Our airport has two Metrolink stops: one on the north side and one on the south side. The south side is directly connected to the airport by an easy walk. 

Regionally I would say that, should Metrolink also entertain light rail, there would be an even stronger relationship between going out of Union Station and getting to the airport, either on the north or south side. That's more in Metro’s long-range plans, but I think that's laudable when you talk about regional connections.

The federal government has a new funding source called the Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act, which is specifically aimed at strengthening those connections. There’s the idea of last mile, where we will be focusing on those connections beyond the four corners of the property itself. The FAA will only fund up to the property line, but this demonstrates that there's additional flexibility, and I think more importantly, a recognition of those regional connections. 

We also have car rental, and major bus lines in something called the Regional Transportation Center on the site, nicknamed the RITC. That is on the airport property, but that also offers this opportunity of connectedness. 

Since we’ve moved forward on the replacement terminal, Uber and Lyft came along. Taxis took a hit, but now taxis are back. Uber and Lyft seem to be struggling a little. Metro now also has something called Metro Micro, and there are more rides coming in through Metro Micro. That's practically a freebie for local connection. 

With the transportation network that we have, we're in a great position and, as they say: location, location, and location. We are afforded this good opportunity of making those connections even stronger so that you no longer have to drive to the airport

The awardees of Burbank’s Airport contract noted in public comment that: “we want to achieve the highest level of sustainability whether it was measured by LEED, Global Green, Cal Green, or other accepted industry standards or certification.” Elaborate on what you expect re the new terminal’s sustainability.

I'll tell you what my personal view is and then I'll give you a broader idea.

The airport is in a very important physical location. It is not susceptible to liquefaction while LAX is and John Wayne is. I don't know about Ontario. If there were ever a catastrophic earthquake, our airport is probably the best located airport to bring in supplies and relief and to help evacuate people. 

Part of my vision for sustainability is a vision of a self-sustaining location during the immediate occurence and in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. The building itself would be sufficient to have its own power, its own recycling system, and its own HVAC, working with solar panels up on the roof of the RITC   and the area itself would be completely self-sustaining. I say that because we have such a great location in the event that happens. 

On the broader theme of sustainability, Bud and I said at the first meeting that we wanted to see this go to LEED Platinum. The design team, over the next three months, are going to look at all the certifications that have to do with achieving the highest level of sustainability whether LEED or others, like CALGreen and Global Green. They're going to look at this whole range of high-level sustainability metrics. As they speak with us and others, they will come up with a recommendation that takes it to the highest level. 

What we don't know, is it LEED Platinum for sure? It might not be labeled that, but it might achieve all of those objectives. We're not going to limit ourselves to the narrow pond of just LEED requirements. We're going to expand out beyond that and look at also ground service, hands-free operations at the airport, greater electrification of services, and how well solar panels are contributing to offsetting the power use at the airport itself. 

Through design, we want to think about places where people can meet. “See you at the Palm Court at the airport.” In looking at how humans move through the terminal, my bias is that everybody should go in the front door. That means everybody: the police chief, his officers, the passengers, the fire staff on duty, the terminal attendants. Everybody should see each other in the morning and that gives them a chance to have face time and be part of the whole mix of the airport.  Part of the magic of the airport is there is a great deal of mixing. If you're having trouble with a bag, a police officer will come and help you. There's that sense of everybody having ownership on everyone who comes in. 

That's some of the sustainability as of now. I expect to see a correspondence table that says these are the policies that we're moving towards and here's where they line up under these approved metrics of LEED and Cal Green and Global Green and so forth. 

What’s the timeline for completion of construction?

The big timeline is when 60 percent of construction drawings are done, the contractor determines what the cost to construct will be. We don't know right now. Are you shocked? 

Our timeline is: Phase 1 is the next 18 months. Phase 1 is pre-construction and design. Phase 1 includes, over the next four months, the team coming up with a proposal for three concepts for the airport that the Commission will discuss and take a position on. For example, one position might be that we'll make it modern inside. One concept might be that we want a very futuristic, all-glass airport. Then one might be a compromise between the two. They're required to submit three concepts with full drawings and renderings. Our step then, in Phase 1, is to approve a direction. 

Their next task is to get to 30 percent design through the design development and the contract drawings and then to move to 60 percent design within approximately 18 months from today. We're targeting April  2024 to be at that point where we finally get the total price tag for the project. 

I will tell you that sounds challenging, but the project manager for the airport itself is a man named Roger Johnson. He worked for LAX for 20 years and he's done $20 billion worth of terminals. He knows his stuff. When he did the estimate on the first phase of the project, all the bidders came in at slightly below or slightly above that estimate. What we have in Jacobs Engineering is an on-the-ground person who understands the vicissitudes of airport planning and design. 

It will take two years to construct, and that's Phase 2. We expect it to be open in October 2026 ahead of the Olympics.

Lastly Emily, you brought to your Presidency of the Airport Authority 30 years of experience in LA City Planning, as well as professional degrees and time as Burbank Mayor and city councilmember. Share what experience you most relied upon to exercise your significant responsibilities leading the airport authority. 

I would say based on my prior professional experience, I drew upon the value of collaboration across professional lines; not intentionally working in a silo, but intentionally working with the transportation engineer and the city engineer and, at the time, the Redevelopment Agency. 

The second thing I would say is understanding someone's self-interest. Maybe that's part of the collaborative process, but being willing to think again about my position and the design position and thought. Understanding what motivates others to come to the table and working with them in achieving their own interest is key.

It may be with a bit of age and grace that I feel that I can provide the kind of leadership that fosters conversations, rather than the right or the left on the extremes. I'm a thinker. Other leadership styles are dynamic, commanding, and controlling. Those aren't mine. I always look for ways to assist others achieve their objectives as well as trying to work for the success of an overall project.

The last thing I'll say just because I'm probably more of a thinker: I am always intrigued by the new challenge and the new information that comes to the table. Nothing has been more complicated than understanding airports. The FAA, who they are, how they operate, and what their problems are. Where are we, as an authority, able to assist in modernization and making efforts to answer complaints? It's an innate curiosity I was able to foster when I was in my professional capacity. I have just followed my muse on trying to make the city and the places I go better when I leave them than when I found them.


“Adjusting the old thinking from the 1990’s of ‘let's make this a huge new Valley LAX’ to ‘let's think about the best way to evolve this airport forward in a safe way,’ led to a rethink of what was ultimately desirable. So, the commitment is 14 to 14 gates."—Emily Gabel-Luddy