February 20, 2015 - From the January/February, 2015 issue

Outgoing LAWA Executive Director Lindsey Assesses Tenure and Challenges Ahead

Gina Marie Lindsey recently announced that she will step down from her position as Los Angeles World Airports Executive Director in the spring of 2015, after serving since 2007. In this exclusive exit interview with MIR, Lindsey reflects on her priorities, achievements, and lessons learned while at LAWA—including the political roadblocks she encountered. She also comments on continued capital improvements at LAX, as well as litigation surrounding Ontario Airport’s possible change in ownership. Finally, Lindsey offers advice to her successor.


Gina Marie Lindsey

"With City Council, a mayor, a Board of Airport Commissioners, a Chief Administrative Office and Controller’s Office all needing to be involved in various parts of the business, one could certainly say the process of making decisions is anything but streamlined. LAWA had not been administered, managed, and governed as an enterprise.” —Gina Marie Lindsey

Gina Marie, you’ve announced that you are retiring from your position as executive director of LAWA. Let’s begin with the mission you defined for yourself when you came to the position in 2007. In hindsight, what were your first priorities? What did you immediately confront in executing on these priorities?

Gina Marie Lindsey: I thought there was a lot to be done when I took the job. The airport was not running in an industry-standard way. The business relationships were all wacky and not consistent. Many of them were very old. I thought we needed to fundamentally rehabilitate the underpinning business relationships, we needed to fix the facilities, and we needed to develop better customer-service consistency.           

How did you proceed to address LAX’s challenges?

We proceeded to incrementally resolve outstanding litigation with all the air carriers at LAX, and negotiate an operating agreement that defined a rates-and-charges policy that puts everybody on the same playing field. That was the airline side.                      

We also re-tendered all of the concessions for every one of the terminals. We went through a terrible hazing period in the direct leasing format as we tried to do the first batch of terminals. So we morphed and did a developer concept for the rest. 

We’ve had an idea of how we wanted the business relationships to work. Sometimes they don’t fit the environment, so we adapt. 

With the benefit of tenure and now retirement, could you elaborate on the enterprise environment the executive director of LAWA confronts—and that your successor will confront—in trying to manage one of the great proprietary departments of the City of Los Angeles and the nation? 

This is a pretty complicated governance system for an enterprise operation. An efficient, facile (important in a quickly changing world) business operation wants to be streamlined. With City Council, a mayor, a Board of Airport Commissioners, a Chief Administrative Office, and a Controller’s Office all needing to be involved in various parts of the business, one could certainly say the process of making decisions is anything but streamlined. LAWA had not been administered, managed, and governed as an enterprise.

In order to have a competitive airport that is running like an enterprise, you’ve got to manage it like a business. That was the fundamental shift that needed to happen.

To have such a radical attitudinal shift in thinking occur at LAX, what must happen? 

The simple, pat answer would be that the body politic needs to lean forward to support what is going to make that enterprise thrive.

That is not necessarily what we have in the City of Los Angeles. For a long time, the city government had dealt with the Department of Airports as just any other city department. That’s part of why it languished and was so far behind other competitive airports in the nation. 

You served as an airport GM before assuming your position at LA World Airports, and you are certainly in contact with your peers around the globe. What could the body politic of Los Angeles learn from other airports regarding governance, operations, and capital investment? 

Both in Alaska and in Seattle, the governance structure gives the airport more autonomy. Other independent authorities are set up to be a bit more insulated from the core body politic of the state or city that they’re in.

There are exceptions. There are certainly other city-run airports, like Chicago, Miami, and Atlanta. But they are not typically the airports regularly populating the top slots of “The Best Airports” lists. 

I think the real problem here was that the airport has been a political pawn for decades. That essentially put the airport development in suspended animation for decades. Operational skill diminished and staff fell into a catatonic state, afraid to do anything while waiting for their leaders to determine what their forward development direction was going to be.

Blessed with the freedom of announced retirement, could you share with our readers the most dominant interest groups in Los Angeles that, more often than not, drive the airport management’s priorities and operational agenda? 

Certain labor interests and neighborhoods are very important to the body politic.

Is the business community less politically relevant?

I haven’t seen business win the day. 

Is your assessment of the value of the business community’s input different in other jurisdictions? 

Yes, you certainly still have special interests, but there’s more balance in the other jurisdictions I’ve worked in.

Let’s pivot to your record of achievement. In January, Los Angeles International Airport was named the 2014 Best Airport in North America by Business Traveler, due to a combination of your work and the turnaround. What accomplishments as executive director of LA World Airports are you most proud of? 

I’m most proud of getting all the LAX underpinning business deals done—the operating agreement with the airlines has allowed redevelopment.

But that’s not what any traveler sees. The pain and agony of getting new concessions is all worthwhile now that we are more closely meeting passenger expectations. I’m proud of our improvements to the facilities—which might be part of why we got the award. Bradley West is wonderful. Plus, we’re making improvements on the face of the terminals. Every terminal here is under construction except Terminal 3, which eventually needs to be completely rebuilt. 

I think travelers see that we are leaning into fixing the facilities. That makes a big difference to folks.

At Van Nuys, our general aviation airport, we resolved all the lease agreements and backlog of rental rates. We re-built the runway and adopted a comprehensive redevelopment program.

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Operation and ownership of Ontario Airport, one of three LA World Airports under your management, is also now a matter requiring your attention. Could you give our readers a status report on the City of LA’s interest in selling to Inland Empire interests?

As you know, we’ve been willing to transfer the airport back for an appropriate price. The argument has been about an appropriate price for the City of LA asset. 

The litigation filed by the City of Ontario had five counts in it. We moved for summary judgment on two of those counts, and the judge has issued a tentative ruling upholding our request for summary judgment. There are three counts left. We don’t know yet whether it will go forward to trial. 

What might be a possible outcome for Ontario Airport that would satisfy Inland Empire civic and business interests and the City Council of LA? 

There is definitely a deal that is imminently possible for the Ontario Airport Authority—to get third-party financing to meet what the mayor needs to justify divesting a City of LA asset. This mayor has leaned very far forward to be friendly to Ontario on identifying a price that he could defend to the City Council, but also is acknowledging that he is dealing with another city government.                                        

Could you give us a status report on LAX’s current capital infrastructure priorities and terminal investments?

With the uptick in passenger traffic, the landside congestion getting into the central terminal area is getting more and more difficult.

The nexus with the light rail construction that MTA has undertaken is very important. Frankly, it’s a long-standing concern not yet fixed. The plan the Board of Airport Commissioners approved in concept last December will fix it. Currently, the body politic is saying, “Let’s get the landside congestion problems fixed, and then we’ll go on to the next level.”

What does a workable LAX landside congestion fix involve?

Building a new consolidated rental car facility, an automated people mover system, and replacing some garages, both inside and outside the central terminal—with the objective of getting 30 percent of the net vehicle traffic currently in the central terminal area (CTA) distributed outside the CTA.

The challenge is to continue operating with some level of customer service while we are doing all of that invasive construction. The secondary challenge is getting it financed in such a way that we don’t price ourselves out of being competitive.

To better appreciate your management challenges, elaborate on the regional and global competition LAX and LAWA face today. What constraints and opportunities does this present your successor going forward?

Airports like San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, and Seattle are all assertively courting international traffic. They’re tough competitors: They have great facilities as a result of methodical, systematic investment, so their pricing structure is better than what ours will be for a while, since we’re doing 30 years worth of facility investment in 10.

However, you cannot deny the incredible market that Los Angeles represents. We have very robust demand to come into LAX. We grew by 6 percent last year, which took us over 70 million passengers. We’ve broken all previous passenger records. As far as we can tell, looking into the near-term future, this substantial growth will continue.

With robust demand reportedly occurring at LAX, how are the nearby communities and elected officials reacting to your efforts to improve airport safety, facilities, and accessibility? 

There is concern among some city leaders at the growth in passenger traffic. I’m sure they’re not jumping up and down about it. 

But there are lots of positive things that mitigate against what would have been old impacts of that increase. First of all, there are still fewer operations than we had 12 years ago. Since the operations themselves are what cause the noise, that’s a good thing. Bigger airplanes are bringing more people on a per-operation basis. 

Second, those planes are fuller than they used to be 12 years ago. Each of those operations is more efficient.

Third, the new aircrafts are much quieter than the old ones.

I think that the community should not react to the number of passengers as much as they should pay attention to the noise levels—which are much better than they were 12 and 20 years ago.

Gina Marie, if you leave on your last day a letter in your desk addressed to your successor, what, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, would you share? 

An admonition to develop a very thick skin! 

I would also include a piece of advice: When you feel frustrated, go up to the old tower cab. Look out at this incredible airport and the amazing things that happen here every day. It will make you feel better. 

Lastly, if after a relaxing reprieve from the duties of executive director of one of the great airports of the world, you’re asked by Bloomberg or the Wall Street Journal to write a piece on 21st-century airports, what would be highlighted? 

The nucleus of that article would be about how airports now and in the future are a nexus of human activity. With that recognition, we should build them to be accommodating of busy people conducting life.

If you were designing an airport from scratch now, you would design it around being a multi-modal center with a great deal of people-friendly space.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.