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Gate Keeper

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Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, a man phoned the office of Lydia Kennard, executive director of Los Angeles International Airport, demanding he be allowed to park his SUV curbside so he could pick up his two dogs from a flight. Though he mentioned that his daughter and Kennard’s were schoolmates, he didn’t stand a chance. At the time, cars were banned from LAX—and when it comes to security, no one gets past Kennard. “My own brother had to take off his shoes and had his sewing kit confiscated,” she says. “He was complaining, but too bad.”

That no-nonsense attitude led Kennard, 47, to immediately ban all curbside drop-offs, shut down airport parking garages and spend $10 million on new screening machines, shatterproof glass and added security personnel—turning LAX into what The Wall Street Journal called “the Alcatraz of airports.” But Kennard, who oversees a bigger airport system than any other woman in the U.S. (she runs three other L.A.-area facilities as well), doesn’t mind the criticism. “When I think about the families left alone because of the attacks,” she says, “I know we’re right to put security above all else.”

Her most controversial and costly move was keeping private cars away from the terminal, well before the FAA advised other airports to follow suit. Besides cutting out curbside drop-offs until mid-December, she closed half the airport’s 14,000 parking spaces for six weeks. As a result, passengers had to take shuttle buses from up to two miles away. Airport garages lost $100,000 a day and 350 workers were laid off. Union executive Miguel Contreras complained at a public hearing that “airport authorities overreacted.” But Kennard didn’t budge. At meetings with officials and businessmen, “she remained the calmest person in the room,” says L.A. Mayor James K. Hahn.

Kennard’s turn in the hot seat has been complicated by the fact that she is pregnant with her second child, due this summer. Despite severe morning sickness in the weeks after the attacks, she went before the cameras repeatedly, reminding the public that three of the four hijacked planes were originally bound for LAX and that her airport had been the target of a foiled bombing plot on New Year’s Day, 2000. “I would do a press conference,” she says, “then throw up and keep going.”

Unlike most airport bosses, Kennard doesn’t have a background in aviation or the military. A construction-company owner who served on the city’s building commission, she was recruited as deputy director in 1994 by then LAX chief Jack Driscoll. When she took over the $231,000-a-year top job in March 2000, her mandate was to oversee a $12 billion expansion of the airport. No more. Now her days are spent taking calls from FBI, FAA and local law-enforcement officials and grappling with a 20 percent decline in business. Sales at airport shops alone are down by as much as half. “There isn’t any normal anymore,” she says, “and it’s not going to go back.”

Kennard credits her family for her tenacity. Reared in the Hollywood Hills, she is the daughter of retired bilingual teacher Helen, 76, and Robert, who died in 1995. He founded KDG Architecture, one of the country’s oldest African-American design firms. (It built several of LAX’s parking garages.) Kennard recalls that each time her father began a project, he would tell his kids at dinner, “I’m a dreamer, and the dreamers are dreaming big dreams tonight.” Kennard’s siblings fulfilled their own dreams as well: Brother William, 45, a lawyer, was the first black chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; sister Gail Madyun, 50, is chief executive officer of her father’s firm.

Lydia was Daddy’s girl through and through. “Since I was little,” she says, “I wanted to build things.” She graduated from Stanford University in 1975, and in 1979 earned both a master’s in urban planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a law degree from Harvard. She joined KDG a year later and founded its construction arm in 1980. In 1992 she wed Sammi Reeves, 40, who now runs it. They met in 1990, when Kennard outbid a pal of Reeves’s on a building project. “He heckled me,” she recalls. Then he invited her to lunch. Today the couple and their daughter Marlyse, 7, share a four-bedroom ranch home with a pool and tennis court.

Not that Kennard has time to play. But she’s not complaining. “This is an opportunity to serve people at a time of real need,” she says. “I guess I’m dreaming those big dreams, just like my dad said.”

Christina Cheakalos

Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles