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On Top of the World

As the recently appointed executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, Lydia Kennard ’79 oversees four airport facilities, 3,000 employees, and an annual budget of nearly $1 billion. But her greatest concern is the growing number of passengers overburdening the second-largest system of airports in the world.

Lydia KennardAt Los Angeles International, the largest of the four airports, passengers flying annually are expected to grow from the current 64.5 million to 86 million in 15 to 20 years. The demand is more than the facilities can handle, according to Kennard. Even today, she said the system regularly operates at 50 percent above capacity.

Kennard is supervising a master plan process that will cost $8 billion to $10 billion, over twice the cost of the recently completed Denver International Airport. The plan, which entails improving ground access and purchasing surrounding land for expansion, is so expensive, said Kennard, “because we have to build a new airport within the existing airport while keeping the existing airport fully operational.” Further complicating the plan, she said, is the need to mitigate noise, traffic, and air pollution—the principal environmental impacts of the airport expansion.

“The facilities nationwide are fundamentally inadequate, both on the passenger side and on the cargo side. It’s very apparent here in Southern California,” said Kennard. “This need for new or expanded aviation facilities is buttressed against the real-life community concerns of people who live and work next to airports. So there’s a constant diligence over how to responsibly develop aviation facilities, which are desperately needed for regional and national economic growth, while still being sensitive to the local community.”

It is, she concedes, a daunting task. But it is the kind of challenge Kennard seeks, emboldened by her education, her entrepreneurial zeal, and a lifelong desire to build from the ground up.

Kennard, whose father founded the oldest African American architecture firm in Los Angeles, earned a bachelor of arts in urban planning and management from Stanford University and came to Cambridge to study for her master’s in city planning at M.I.T. Although she never intended to go to law school, an undergraduate professor convinced her that she would be more marketable with a law degree, and she gained her J.D. at HLS and master’s degree the same year. “Urban planning and real estate development are all embedded in land-use law, so the suggestion to pursue a law degree was great advice,” said Kennard.

For 14 years, Kennard served as president of KDG Development Construction Consulting, where she specialized in land-use issues for both the public and private sectors. She began at Los Angeles World Airports in 1994 as deputy executive director, managing the capital improvement budget and overseeing real estate, planning, design, engineering, and construction at the facilities. Last year, she was appointed interim executive director before being named permanent director in March.

Her private sector experience, she says, has enhanced her ability to run an efficient operation at the airports. “I’m an entrepreneur,” she said, “and this is an opportunity to run a huge business. I can’t imagine at this point in my career doing anything that’s more exciting.”

Lewis Rice

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