A consolidated rental-car facility will ease congestion. // © 2017 Dennis Allain
Feature image (above): LAX will get an automated people-mover. // © 2017 Dennis Allain
Many travelers will admit that stepping into an airport unleashes something dark within them. It’s as if we cross the threshold from ordinary life into an alternate universe where our ability to be rational is diminished and, in a werewolf-like transformation, we turn into different creatures — snarling at fellow passengers, growling at TSA agents and barking at beloved family members. It’s only after we arrive at a destination and deplane that we recover from this delirium and sheepishly shift back into our mild-mannered selves.
But air travel doesn’t have to be this way.
Through a sweeping $14 billion modernization project, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) — the fourth-busiest airport in the world and second-busiest in the U.S. — is aiming to become a haven for travelers and a leader in the airport industry.
By means of massive undertakings that are already underway and slated to conclude by 2023 — including the Landside Access Modernization Program (LAMP), a new Midfield Satellite Concourse, terminal renovations and more — LAX is undergoing a metamorphosis. The goal: to emerge as a highly contemporary, state-of-the-art facility. Here’s a look at what West Coast travelers can expect, both during the construction of these enhancements and once they’re completed, and how LAX hopes to change the state of air travel.
Ready for Takeoff
While Los Angeles is known for its laid-back vibes and cool-as-cucumber-juice denizens, LAX has a reputation for being chaotic and, well, whatever the exact opposite of Zen is.
But Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) hopes to change that with its multibillion-dollar Capital Improvement Program, considered the largest public works program in the city’s history. The modernization began around 2009 — one of the top accomplishments is the $1.9 billion update to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, finished in 2015 — and is expected to last over the next few years, improving everything from bathrooms and internet speed to traveler access on a large scale.
Though LAX ranks 86th on Skytrax’s 2017 list of the world’s top 100 airports — up from No. 91 last year — it has also been rated as one of the top 10 most improved airports in the world this year by the air travel review and rating consultancy.
Additionally, LAX was named “Airport with The Best Overall Program” and “Best Program Design, Large Airport Division” in 2016 by Airport Revenue News for its dining, retail concessions and passenger services.
“We want to transform this airport,” said Cynthia Guidry, deputy executive director of the planning and development group for LAWA. “[LAWA CEO Deborah] Flint envisions a future where LAX will be recognized as one of the top-tier major airports worldwide and be on the forefront of quality passenger experience. It will be a world-class facility, a gold-standard airport.”
And LAWA is pouring blood, sweat and tears — and a lot of money — into making that happen: In addition to a revamp of facilities in nearly every part of LAX, one of the projects that has airport officials most excited is LAMP. Through the multiphase program, LAX will construct a 2.25-mile Automated People Mover with six stations. Specifics are still in progress, but the concept will include an elevated train and moving sidewalks. The people-mover will connect passengers with the central terminal area; a new consolidated rental-car facility, which will be located just off the 405 freeway for convenient access; and two new Intermodal Transportation Facilities that will provide locations outside the airport for public parking, passenger drop-off and pickup and connection with public transit.
That last piece is particularly exciting, as travelers will now have the option to ditch their cars and take the Los Angeles Metro directly to LAX, arriving at the proposed 96th Street/Aviation Boulevard stop. The new Metro Crenshaw/LAX Line will connect the current Metro Exposition and Metro Green lines.
“LAMP is a phenomenal opportunity for us to help with traffic congestion in and around the airport,” Guidry said. “It will eliminate an enormous number of vehicles and will provide an overall better experience for everyone.”
Roger Johnson, deputy executive director of airports development for LAWA and the program executive for LAMP, paints a picture of a future LAX that sounds more like a wellness getaway than the typical quagmire of an airport experience.
“Once you are on the people-mover ... you will approach the scenic gateway to LAX, gliding above the city’s traffic hustle and bustle,” he said. “Your ride into the central terminal area will feature an intimate sweep past the iconic, midcentury-modern LAX Theme Building. In any of the six open-air stations, you will encounter Southern California’s light, gentle climate and multimedia art that reflects the diverse cultures and unique environment of Los Angeles.”
Johnson also notes that LAMP facilities will be designed to provide full access and ease of mobility for seniors, people with disabilities and families with small children; to maximize ease of pedestrian and bicycle access; and to improve traffic.
In March, the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners certified the Final Environmental Impact Report for LAMP and recommended that the Los Angeles City Council approve the project. If all goes according to plan, the proposed $5.5 billion program will be delivered by 2023.
Another venture designed to ease congestion is the new $1.6 billion Midfield Satellite Concourse, which broke ground at the end of February. The five-level facility, which will be located just west of the international terminal, will feature 12 gates — including many designed for wide-body aircraft such as Airbus A380s and Boeing 747-8s — new taxiways and utility improvements. It will also offer flexibility to accommodate aircraft while other gates are in use or during terminal upgrades, reducing the use of remote gates. Construction is taking place on the airfield and is expected to have little impact on visitors; the first phase is slated to be done by the end of 2019.
In addition to major terminal renovations (more on that later), other projects underway or incoming at LAX include runway safety enhancements and the $613 million In-Line Baggage Handling and Screening System Program, which will automate the security screening of checked baggage at all LAX terminals. Southwest Airlines’ Terminal 1 is the last in line for completion and is expected to finish sometime next year. Last year saw the replacement or refurbishment of 212 escalators, elevators and moving walkways; and the conclusion of the Curbside Appeal and Roadway Improvement Project, which updated the outward appearance of the airport.
And, by the way, if you’re an Angeleno wondering who’s paying for all this, rest assured: It’s not coming out of your pocket (or from the City of Los Angeles General Fund). The LAX Modernization Program is funded entirely by LAX operating revenues, capital improvement monies, fees from passenger facility charges and airport revenue bonds.
Nearly all of the terminals at LAX are undergoing changes, but perhaps the most talked about has been this month’s airline relocation. (As of press time, the majority of the moves were scheduled for May 12, 14 and 16). As part of Delta Air Lines’ move from Terminals 5 and 6 to Terminals 2 and 3, twenty-one airlines have been relocated so that Delta can begin its $1.9 billion enhancement — planned to roll out over the next seven years — that will modernize and connect its new
terminals to Tom Bradley International Terminal. Completed Terminal 2 improvements include updates to the ticketing lobby, baggage screening, baggage-claim area and concourses, along with new concessions. (Be sure to check online for a comprehensive list of airlines’ new terminals.)
Another big change is United Airlines’ $573 million renovation in Terminals 7 and 8, scheduled to finish in early 2018.
The project includes a modern look for the terminals and gate areas, an expanded ticketing lobby with self-tagging baggage kiosks, an upgraded security screening area, new escalators and elevators, a new baggage carousel and new restrooms.
In Terminal 1, Southwest is in the second phase of a $515.8 million renovation that will improve the facility’s interior, outdoor aircraft parking ramp area and traffic flow, and bring a new security screening area and a food court. A new eatery, Rock & Reilly’s Irish Pub, opened in March.
In Terminal 4, American Airlines is continuing its million-dollar renovation of its Admirals Club and Flagship Lounge. Opened last fall, the $148.5 million Terminal 4 connector now allows passengers to move between Tom Bradley and Terminals 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 without having to go outside or leave secure areas. Additionally, two new Automated Screening Lanes opened in March at the TSA Security Screening Check Point in Terminal 4, and more of these lanes — which allow five guests to fill their bins at the same time and reduce wait times by about 30 percent — will be added to the international terminal.
Though not on the same scale, but no less exciting, is the announcement that came in late February that a Shake Shack location will open in LAX. The popular burger chain is set to debut in Terminal 3 in the fall, along with a new Starbucks location and La Familia, a restaurant and tequila spot. Additionally, a Peet’s Coffee & Tea has just opened in Terminal 6.
Last year, a $250 million renovation of Terminal 5 provided a new in-line baggage-screening system, an expansion of passenger-screening checkpoints, a new baggage claim facility, new lounges and more dining options, among other updates.
And if that’s all too much to take in at once, just remember one thing: Shake Shack, Terminal 3. (See you there.)
Beam Me Up, Scotty
What would a state-of-the-art airport be without a matching digital presence?
By the end of the year, LAX hopes to debut a redesigned website and mobile site that can serve as a one-stop shop for airport guests, providing information on parking, traffic and construction; offering way-finding services; and even allowing for food ordering.
“We need to be at the forefront of technology in order to handle the tens of millions of passengers that come through our airport,” said Justin Erbacci, deputy executive director and chief innovation and technology officer for LAWA. “In this day and age, people expect that they’ll be able to get the information and services they need through their mobile devices, so we have to be able to provide this to make their journey easier and more pleasant. And as we go through construction, it’s going to be vital that we’re getting information to guests to let them know the easiest way to navigate through our airport.”
Other enhancements to come throughout the airport include better Wi-Fi access by the end of this month — and travelers will be able to access the internet in just one click, rather than the multiple steps currently required, ideally by October, Erbacci says — along with improved cellular coverage inside the terminals (still a work in progress).
Erbacci also notes that LAX will be rolling out many pilot programs over the next few years to test out new technologies that may make the passenger experience more efficient. The recently launched “LAX4U” clean restroom program allows guests to text the airport about bathroom conditions, while the Mobile Passport app — which helps passengers move quickly through U.S. Customers and Border Protection by submitting passport information beforehand via smartphone — has been implemented in Tom Bradley.
Some additional insider tips to pass along to clients: Nursing rooms are now available in every terminal, and this year, LAX will install seven new indoor animal-relief stations, which will bring the airport’s total number of service-animal/pet-relief stations to 11, more than any other U.S. airport.
Encountering Some Turbulence
Of course, delivering such a large-scale modernization program is quite the ordeal, and airport officials are working to keep the guest experience as pleasant as possible during the years-long enhancements.
“We want folks to be patient with us as we go through this process,” said Guidry of LAWA’s planning and development group. “It will be a new LAX.”
She says challenges include executing the work while keeping it acceptable, operational and safe for guests, as well as sticking to LAWA’s budget and time schedule. Constant communication — with staff, the public, the airlines and LAX tenants — is necessary, she says, noting that officials understand that the changes aren’t insular and affect the surrounding community just as much as they do travelers.
“We want our neighbors to all be proud of what we are doing in and around the airport,” Guidry said. “It’s not just us operating alone; it’s this entire region working together.”
Being a responsible neighbor also entails promoting sustainable construction and green practices whenever possible, and officials are looking to meet or exceed LEED Silver standards, according to Guidry, who points out that LAX is additionally looking into providing implements such as electric charging stations. Deputy executive director Johnson notes that the LAMP project will include sustainable landscaping, too.
LAX has already made strides in becoming more eco-friendly. From 2010 to 2015, it reduced its total energy use by more than 50 percent on a per-passenger basis; from 2011 to 2015, it decreased its potable water use by 25 percent on a per-passenger basis; and last year, it was recognized for its commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2025 and by 80 percent by 2050.
Coming in for Landing
So how can clients best navigate the airport — and keep stress levels at a minimum — in the meantime?
Along with arriving to LAX much earlier than usual, Guidry recommends that travelers utilize the airport’s online resources (see sidebar, p. 19) before a visit in order to stay informed about current construction and traffic alerts and airport conditions. Encourage clients to travel to and from LAX with public transit; ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber; the LAX FlyAway bus; or some combination of the above, as well. Once at the airport, passengers should continue checking for updates to make sure they’re in the correct location. Airport guides in bright-green vests will be available through the end of this month to help guests needing directions or assistance post-airline relocation.
Whether the reimagined LAX will set a standard for other facilities — and help keep travelers’ inner beast at bay — is yet to be seen. But one thing we do know: The “getting there” might be a little painful, but the best is yet to come.
As Guidry says: “Stay tuned."