LAWA's Gina Marie Lindsey Prioritizes Green Airports, Transport

Gina Marie Lindsey

With a constellation of regional airports, including one of the country’s busiest, LAX, Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) will play a crucial role in the greening of air travel in the United States. But in L.A., air travel is just a single piece in one of the most complex transportation puzzles in the country, where goods movement and car traffic clogs up vast and varied terrain. In the following VerdeXchange News interview, LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey discusses the opportunities for sustainable air travel offered by efficiently managed air traffic and integrated ground access.


Airports and air traffic are widely cited as one of the largest and fastest-growing sources of pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. What efforts are currently underway, or being considered, by LAWA and other metropolitan airports around the world to mitigate and reduce emissions?

Aircrafts are the largest source of carbon emissions in our world. We are trying to reduce our contribution by encouraging new aircraft to use our airports. Aircraft manufacturers need to take some Airports and air traffic are widely cited as one of the largest and fastest-growing sources of pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

What efforts are currently underway, or being considered, by LAWA and other metropolitan airports around the world to mitigate and reduce emissions?

Aircrafts are the largest source of carbon emissions in our world. We are trying to reduce our contribution by encouraging new aircraft to use our airports. Aircraft manufacturers need to take some credit for the work that they’ve done to improve the technology and reduce emissions and fuel usage for their aircraft. That’s the largest single contributor, and it’s the toughest thing we’re dealing with. The airport can, however, try to create a ground environment that lets those aircraft get in the air and out of the air as fast as possible so they’re not spending time circling, waiting for a runway to free up, and they’re not spending time waiting on the taxiway to take off.

LAWA owns and manages three airports. Focusing on landside operations, what initiatives is LAWA considering to reduce greenhouse emissions, pollution, and traffic congestion?

Really, the easiest thing for us to do to reduce emissions is to ensure easy access on the ground for vehicles. Even though I’m telling you that aircraft are the largest source of emissions, certainly the ground transportation access for passengers is a contributor. If you’ve got a lot of single occupancy vehicles coming to your airport and if it’s congested getting to your airport, you’re obviously impacting the environment more than you want to. Having efficient access for passengers and efficient access for aircraft is really what you can do on the ground to try to reduce emissions.

One of your jobs before taking over at LAWA was as manager of the Sea- Tac airport. What happened in terms of environmental and emissions mitigation during your time at that airport?

On the ground side, we were just about to launch a reconstruction of our major roadways coming into the airport because they were fairly congested; they forced people to circle around to pick people up instead of parking and going into the airport to pick people up. There was a reconstruction of the roadways there that was going to make it easier for folks to get in, but not so easy for them to just circle around in front of the terminal. On the air side, the effort to build a third runway in Seattle dealt with the inclement weather. About 40 percent of the time, there is weather that puts aircraft in an inclement flying configuration. The close spacing of the runways on that airfield meant that, about 40 percent of the time, we had aircraft circling so we could have the appropriate separation. That, of course, was a major project, costing over $1 billion building for the runway, which will be open next year. The net effect creates an efficient airfield for all weather conditions.

Seattle’s Mayor Nickels has led the U.S. Conference of Mayors initiative on climate change, and Mayor Villaraigosa of Los Angeles has proposed some very aggressive goals for the city of L.A. As executive director of LAWA, how do you prioritize a green agenda, especially as you carry out the reconstruction of LAWA’s three airports?

The Board of Airport Commissioners has adopted a sustainability program that is comprehensive not only regarding how we operate, but also how we develop. On the development side of things, we are going to do our very best to be sure that everything we build has a LEED certification where applicable. We are in the middle of the reconstruction project for the Tom Bradley International Terminal. We’ve incorporated design standards for that project, which I think, when delivered, will be the first LEED-certified terminal renovation program in the world. Certainly, there are new terminals that have been built to LEED-certification standards, but I don’t think that there has been a renovation of a terminal that has received LEED certification. We’re making that a high priority; the board is making it a high priority. That will certainly be a key value that drives how we design all of our projects and rebuild this airport.

People involved in airport management weren’t brought up and trained in environmental sciences, yet the climate change and emissions reductions movement has begun to dominate the public environment. How do you learn to “connect the green dots” at LAWA’s airports, especially given all the pressing priorities on your plate?

Somebody said that the key attribute of the 21st century is that everybody will be learning throughout their lives. I have to say that that is certainly a requirement for airport directors these days because, you’re right, the whole idea of environmental sensitivity and green values was not something that was a formal part of the traditional professional-life education. I connect the dots by being sure that I’ve got folks on staff that are very educated on this—because I’m not—folks that are passionate about creating a sustainability program and are able to drive the values and principles of sustainability throughout the organization, incorporating them into everything we do.

LAWA consists of more than just LAX; it includes regional airports, such as L.A./Ontario. In a recent interview in the San Bernardino County Sun, you implored people to fly out of L.A./Ontario in order to regionalize the use of these airports, which can have an affect on climate change issues. What are the challenges of making regional airports a more viable part of the air travel landscape?

We’ve got Ontario, Van Nuys, and Palmdale. From the standpoint of commercial service, effectively we’re really only talking about Ontario and Palmdale as alternatives to LAX. We are trying, number one, to be sure that we’ve got the facilities on the ground that are appropriate to growing those airports for commercial passenger service. It’s important to recognize, though, that it’s not just the airport that is going to be key to making regionalism work. The surface transportation network that brings passengers from the population base to these airports is absolutely critical. Right now, we’ve got a system of highways that doesn’t necessarily make it an attractive option to drive 25 miles to get to an airport. That’s a real obstacle for us in building air service at Ontario and Palmdale. If we could figure out a way to help on the regional transportation challenges so that it creates a more conducive market for these airports, then I think we’ve got some real potential. Of course, traffic at Ontario is steadily growing. Traffic at Palmdale is going to be a real challenge. We’ve got one flight there now, serving the Palmdale/San Francisco route, which has a subsidy promise to United Airlines. It will be very important that there is market acceptance. For those that live close to these airports, they really need to make it a major objective to fly out of these airports, or else we will lose the service.

At the GreenXchange Conference in December, you’ll be on a panel with former Transportation Secretary Mineta. What’s the interface between airports such as Seattle and L.A. and the federal government? How does the communication function between government and the airports and between the airports themselves in order for all parties to achieve their goals?

In the past, I think that the federal government has taken a fairly vertical approach to transportation challenges. There’s been the highway program, the transit program, and the aviation program. There hasn’t always been a broad understanding on the federal level that intermodalism is truly necessary to deal with congestion in some of the most popular corridors. If you look at the FAA long-term plan, even if they get the next generation of air transportation technology implemented, there are two large red dots in sectors of the country that are still problematic—one of those is the Northeast corridor and the other is Southern California. So, I think there is a growing awareness on the part of the federal Department of Transportation that the various modes of transportation need to be interlinked so that there is a true ability to disperse traffic from what may have historically been the most popular places. In the new Federal Aviation bill that is currently being contemplated by Congress, I think you’ll see more flexibility with some of the aviation money that was historically channeled only toward airport planning and aviation planning for specific airports. Now, there is more willingness and flexibility to look regionally at aviation system issues and how other modes of transportation might affect those airports. That, I think, is a major move in the right direction—for the federal government to recognize that local governments and local mobile transportation hubs need to look at their issues in a broader context.

As you’ve mentioned, the ingress and egress at LAX and the other LAWA airports depends on autos and other ground transport. There is no mass transit into any of LAWA’s airports (i.e., the Green Line and mass transit lines don’t reach the LAX). With what’s happening in New York, Chicago, Heathrow, and other large airports, what is the chance that you can alter transit priorities and secure support for a regional transport system linked into the expansion plans for LAX?

I’m hopeful that there is a good chance for that. In this day and age, it would be ridiculous for us to not have a mass transit node that feeds into LAX. I say that with some chagrin because LAX is the only major airport I know of that doesn’t have direct freeway access. We’ve got some challenges on the ground transportation side of how to get to LAX that I think are pretty signifi cant. However, I think they are resolvable. The future will absolutely require looking at an airport as an intermodal transportation mode. We need a mass transit connection somewhere close to the central terminal area at LAX. Part of our long-term development plan is to provide an automated people mover from someplace east of the central terminal right now, which would also logically be a transit stop. Combining a transit stop with the automated people mover provides a convenient transfer so that folks never have to use their automobiles and can still get directly to their terminals.

If we were to do another interview a year from now, what would the discussion be about? What do you foresee as the issues that will dominate your time during the coming year?

I hope we’ll be talking about specific plans of action and schedules, whereby some of these needed ground transportation improvements will get in place, and a plan of action to potentially fix some of our geography challenges on the airfields.