Los Angeles airport spending $4 billion on expansion, upgrades
Los Angeles International Airport — long ranked among the nation's worst aviation hubs — is on an expansion/renovation path that could restore its reputation as the West Coast's dominant international gateway.
Los Angeles Times
Northwest Travel Guides
LOS ANGELES — Barring another terrorist attack or recession that disrupts air travel, Los Angeles International Airport — long ranked among the nation's worst aviation hubs — is on a path that could restore its reputation as the West Coast's dominant international gateway.
Modernization projects now underway mark the first major expansion of passenger facilities since the Tom Bradley International Terminal was built for the Summer Olympics 27 years ago.
Since then, LAX has steadily fallen behind the modernization efforts of other big-city airports. Aging terminals and a lack of amenities have undercut passenger satisfaction and the airport's share of overseas travelers, some of whom fly into San Francisco, which opened a stunning international terminal in 2000.
Now airport officials, including those beyond Los Angeles, say LAX's stature is on the rise. At least $4 billion is being spent on additions to the Bradley terminal, improvements to several domestic terminals and upgraded utilities and taxiways to handle the latest generation of super-sized jumbo jets.
"We want to do in three years what other airports have done in seven or eight," said Los Angeles airport chief Gina Marie Lindsey, who was hired four years ago to get languishing modernization efforts moving.
John L. Martin, the veteran airport director hailed for remodeling San Francisco's airport, says that "any competitive advantage we had in terms of facilities on the international side will be going away" with the Bradley West project, now being built. It is to house a grand hall filled with upscale restaurants, posh lounges and luxury boutiques.
The addition's massive steel skeleton is visible and will include new concourses, gates, 1 million additional square feet of floor space and an expanded customs area. It will eliminate the hassle that international travelers encounter when flights stop short of the Bradley terminal and passengers are bused to the immigration processing area.
Other pending projects include a giant passenger processing center and a new concourse west of the Bradley terminal that would add more gates. It would be linked to the main terminal area by a steel-and-glass sky bridge, and an elevated tram would whisk passengers to other remodeled terminals. A new station would link the entire airport to the growing regional rail network.
Lindsey acknowledged that the ambitious modernization schedule will rely on meeting upbeat passenger projections and avoiding another economic downturn, a terrorist attack on the nation or hikes in fuel costs and ticket prices.
"The other projects will depend on how much the airport grows," she said, "and how much we can pay down our debt."
Early cutting-edge design
Half a century ago, LAX was conceived as a futuristic, cutting-edge reflection of the jet age, a vision still projected at the airport by the historic Theme Building, which looks like a flying saucer suspended on curved concrete legs.
For decades, the airport that ushered in its first jetliner in 1959 prided itself on operating a no-frills facility that stressed low costs for airlines and the efficient movement of passengers.
In the terminals, travelers could buy little more than the basics: a newspaper, a cup of coffee, cafeteria fare and a preflight libation. The mantra was: "We are an airport, not a shopping mall."
The utilitarian philosophy served the airport well. Attracted by low costs and the emergence of Los Angeles as a huge market for air travel, foreign and domestic carriers steadily added service, fueling the region's economy.
But by the 1990s, the terminals were dated and falling into disrepair. Modernization schemes were proposed by Mayors Richard Riordan and James K. Hahn to greatly expand the airport's footprint and add new terminals.
Both plans met stiff opposition from residents and neighboring cities worried about traffic congestion, noise, pollution and the likelihood that homes and businesses would be demolished to make way for improvements.
As politicians and airport neighbors fought over how best to revitalize LAX, the terminals deteriorated further. Water mains broke, escalators failed, concrete fell from the legs of the Theme Building and passenger areas grew more crowded.
Officials realized too that the old gates could not accommodate the latest wide-bodied aircraft, including the giant Airbus A380 now in service.
Research showed that the worsening conditions contributed to passenger declines even before air travel was slammed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. LAX lost about 12 percent of the airline seats on its weekly international departures from 2000 to 2006, while many other U.S. gateways posted gains.
The stakes were particularly high for the local economy. A 2006 study found that a single international flight traveling round-trip daily from LAX generated $623 million a year in business activity for the region and supported 3,120 jobs.
The threat of a downward spiral sparked a new commitment — and a new approach — to reviving LAX under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Within months of his election, Villaraigosa settled a major lawsuit and compromised with neighbors so certain airport projects could proceed, as long as some projected passenger growth was pushed to other airports in the region. The deal limited the capacity to 78 million passengers a year, about 11 million fewer than Riordan had sought.
Aviation officials say LAX's development also has been hampered by a high turnover of airport directors. Over a 30-year period, eight leaders came and went, including interim chiefs and one who served twice. San Francisco by contrast, had just two in that time.
Villaraigosa put Lindsey in the top job, where she has remained for four years, longer than the combined tenure of the two directors who preceded her.
Lindsey got the Bradley West project moving, cleared the way for improvements to domestic terminals and helped to bring a more passenger-centric view to LAX planning. "We are looking at the most innovative things at sports venues, shopping malls and convention centers," she said. "We want to create an environment that is soothing, welcoming and alive."
To help finance the current renovations, the airport sold $2 billion in bonds. The debt will be paid with fees charged to airlines, revenue from concessions and charges added to the cost of tickets.
Officials hope passenger volumes will grow so the debt can be paid down and more money can be borrowed to keep improvements coming.
Passenger ups and downs
The latest five-year forecasts from a top industry analyst and the Federal Aviation Administration indicate that the number of passengers at LAX will increase from 59.1 million to between 62 million and 68 million by 2014.
But some FAA and LAX forecasts have been unreliable — wildly so — partly because of unforeseen events. LAX had been expected to grow over the last decade, but the number of passengers actually declined by 8.2 million.
Contributing to the downward pressure were the Sept. 11 attacks, the outbreak of a highly contagious illness in Asia, dramatically higher fuel prices in 2008 and the recession.
In 2010, LAX handled 15.9 million international passengers, a 5.5 percent increase over 2009, but 1.6 million below the peak in 2005. The growth rate was slower than San Francisco's.
In addition to uncertainties about future revenue related to passenger growth, LAX has to balance the pace of improvements with the rising costs it is imposing on airlines, industry analysts say.
If fees become too high, carriers, particularly discount airlines, might be discouraged from operating at LAX or adding flights there.
"At about $11 per enplaned passenger, LAX has had some of the lowest rates for years. Now they are talking about $20 per passenger or more," said Jack Keady, an airline industry consultant based in Playa del Rey. LAX officials had "better pay attention to their costs."
Despite the new modernization efforts, local business leaders remain concerned that LAX still lags behind its competitors, which also are looking to upgrade and compete for lucrative international travelers.
"There has been some progress, but we still have a 1984 airport competing in a 2011 world," said Russell Goldsmith, chief executive of City National Bank and chairman of a business coalition that views the improvement of LAX as vital to boosting local commerce.
Goldsmith says airport officials must move faster to remake domestic terminals, connect LAX to transit lines and further separate the two northern runways, a proposal that might improve the safety and efficiency of flight operations.
But the runway proposal is rekindling the political fires surrounding airport improvements. One watchdog group that helped sink earlier master plans, the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, contends the proposal is unnecessary and will harm communities to the north of LAX.
The alliance recently made the north runways an issue in the race to represent the 36th Congressional District, which includes LAX. It obtained a pledge not to expand the airport from one of the two primary election winners, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Maria L. LaGanga in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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