The transformation of Los Angeles International Airport is underway. Tom Allett reports.
After many years of delay, work is underway to redevelop Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) into a gateway worthy of the city it serves.
Say the name Los Angeles (LA), or mention the state of California, and most people immediately think of Hollywood and the movie business. Its glitz and glamour is famous across the globe and plays a major part in attracting visitors to LA. However, the city is a world-class destination in every respect. Sunshine, mountains, beaches, culture, celebrity; whatever you want, you can find it in the vicinity of LA. When you add in the fact that its climate is just about as good as it gets, it’s no surprise that LA is amongst the elite of America’s tourist centres.
Inevitably though, all these positives do create their own problem. If your city’s reputation is glamorous, its ‘front door’ should really match this image. Unfortunately, in the last few decades, LAX hasn’t moved with the times and as a result, there is a lot of work to be done.
LAX is one of three southern Californian airports managed by Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which is a semi-independent local government department of the city of Los Angeles. LAWA also runs the primarily regional facility of LA/Ontario Airport and the dedicated General Aviation operation at Van Nuys. Until recently, it also leased and managed the small commercial terminal at Palmdale, but ONT and VNY will be featured in a future edition.
Know as the Los Angeles Department of Airports until 1983, today’s LAWA is controlled by a seven-member Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners who are appointed by the city’s Mayor and confirmed by the Los Angeles City Council. The Board is led by Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey who is well-known in the industry for her previous successes at Seattle.
LAX has a history stretching right back to the early days of commercial flying and its original terminal building is still in use as a tiny freight-handling facility. LAX has often been at the forefront of airport development, especially at the dawn of the jet age when it was unquestionably one of the most modern in the world.
Today though, the facts don’t fit the airport’s image. The outsider’s widely-held image of the city raises his or her expectations about how smart and user-friendly LAX should be and, as we all know, it is the airport that provides the passenger with his or her first impression of the area. This is something that the airport’s various management teams have had to live with for decades and everybody knows that in its more recent history there have been long spells when it hasn’t received the investment it required. Like a previous generation’s starlet at the Oscars, the airport is perhaps best remembered as it was in its heyday, rather than what you see today.
It’s not all bad news. LAX’s iconic Theme Building, opened in 1961, is an instantly-recognisable landmark that has thankfully been preserved for future generations to enjoy. Its Encounter Restaurant has provided spectacular views of much of the airport for many years and, after a period of post 9/11 closure for security reasons, its observation deck looks set to re-open. However, while the Theme Building is certainly a positive aspect of the airport’s heritage, the problem lies with the fact that a significant part of LAX’s operational buildings are still essentially 1960s infrastructure. There hasn’t been a major capital investment in the airport since the construction of its primary international facility, the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), when the city was preparing to host the 1984 Olympic Games.
LAX is currently the sixth busiest airport in the world and offers more than 560 daily flights to 81 destinations in the US plus more than 1,000 weekly non-stop flights to 65 international destinations.
The TBIT accommodates over 30 airlines and last year they carried more than 8.6 million international travellers, or 57% of LAX’s overall 15.1 million international passenger volume. In total, more than 56.5 million fliers passed through LAX last year and by 2012, the airport is expected to be handling more Airbus A380 flights than any other North American airport. While the economic benefits that airports bring to their adjacent communities and beyond are no-doubt well understood by all our readers, it is interesting to note that a study completed by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) calculated that LAX’s flights created 363,700 direct and indirect jobs with annual wages of $19.3 billion in LA and the nearby Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. The LAEDC study also found that one average transoceanic flight travelling round-trip from LAX every day added $623 million in economic output annually and sustained 3,120 direct and indirect jobs in Southern California with $256 million in annual wages.
In the 1970s LAX had approximately 74% of southern California’s passenger traffic, but now that is down to around 56%.
A decade ago the City of Los Angeles began to promote what it called ‘regionalism’ – aimed at diluting passenger traffic away from LAX and into its regional neighbours such as Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario, Orange County and San Diego. The effect this had was soon followed by the post September 11, 2001, downturn in traffic. The combination of these two factors meant that from 2000 to 2009 LAX’s passenger figures have dropped from 68 million passengers to around 56.5 million. There was a recovery in 2007 when 62 million were recorded but in essence there are 6 million passengers who never came back after 9/11.
The fact that LAX hasn’t quite fully recovered to the passenger levels it had prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US is really a blessing in disguise because today its passenger numbers already exceed its design capacity. However, this will be corrected by its current redevelopment plans, which are designed to prepare the airport for the years ahead.
The entire airport is in the process of catching up with its past glories but although there is a lot of work to be done, nobody at LAWA is pretending otherwise and it is now focused upon getting the job done.
Bearing in mind that LAWA has three airports to run, when asked about how much of her time is spent dealing with issues related to LAX, LAWA’s Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey told Airports International:
“I probably spend about 70% of my time on LAX, 20% on Van Nuys and the remaining 10% on Ontario. LAX takes up so much of my time right now not just because it’s a complicated operation here, but because we are in such a significant catch-up period at the moment – from a facilities and business management point of view. Those two topics cover just about everything we do here and all of it has to be re-done. We are in the process of renewing all of our business relationships with our airlines and our concessionaires. There was no capital investment programme (CIP) here despite the fact that there had been years and years of planning. The plans were constantly changing but nobody ever sat down to actually analyze what facilities were needed and set out a prioritized CIP to figure how to define the project, what it would cost and how to start delivering.”
When asked how the airport arrived in this situation, Ms Lindsey replied: “Primarily, every time there was a change in the Mayor’s office downtown, the ideas about how LAX would develop was changed. It was a very politically sensitive issue. Therefore, the plan of the day was highly dependent on who was in office, so they [previous managers] were never really able to stay on a consistent course. As your readers will know, the timescales by which airlines and airports can introduce new products are completely opposite. Airlines can do things like this [she snaps her fingers] because they have very flexible assets, but with airports, every time you want to change direction it takes ‘forever’.
“There was also a lot of community opposition to every one of the development plans over a period of 12-15 years. During that time our facilities went from being over 20 years old to 30-plus. “Right now [at the time of the author’s visit] we are trying to fix an elevator [in the old control tower which is now one of LAWA’s office buildings] that is 61-years old! One of the capital projects we have launched is to replace all our elevators and escalators here in the central terminal area – every one of them is over 30 years old. It’s amazing.”
Asked if she had ever reached the stage where it had been difficult to know where to start, Lindsey replied: “Oh yeah, it was a target-rich environment; like being a mosquito in a nudist camp! You know exactly what you have to do, but you don’t know where to start.
“Having said that, my senior staff and I feel, privileged to have the opportunity to re-build one of the transportation icons of the world. We have that opportunity, we are grateful for it and we will work really hard to get it done.
“It’s frustrating though. For example, we recently wanted to enhance some of the staff car parking areas; consolidate them, clean them up, put new lighting in and a fence around, etc, but we couldn’t just replace the lighting because the [electrical] infrastructure couldn’t handle the upgrade.
“Every time you want to improve something it just leads you into bigger and bigger obligations and we have that everywhere. We can feel a little overwhelmed quite frequently. Another good example is the replacement of the Central Utilities Plant (CUP). We have to do it and that’s going to cost us about 800 million bucks to get it connected to all the terminals and when that’s finished we will have heating, ventilation and air-conditioning; something we already have. We have to spend all that money without having the benefit of it driving even a single extra passenger and we will need an extra CUP when we build the midfield concourse we plan for the future.”
I asked if, in a city the size of LA, which obviously has many other major responsibilities, the city’s central office view the work to be done at LAX as a prestige project, a headache, or something in-between. Ms Lindsey replied: “I think right now it is a prestige project, but it wasn’t always that way. Frankly, LA’s travel and business communities had to get really upset about their airport. They were embarrassed by its appearance. They would travel around the world and see lovely airports elsewhere, and then they would come home and think, ‘wait a second; we are a world-class city, we’re very cool…and our front door looks like this…?’ “They tired of not being competitive from an airport point of view. It took years of that kind of frustration growing in the travel and business communities to get things moving.
“When Mayor (Antonio) Villaraigosa was appointed he made it very clear that he wanted to regenerate the airport. He has been the driving force behind it and that’s why my senior staff and I are here. That’s why we are racing to get it done and we don’t have much time because we are already behind the competitive power curve here and we have to move forwards – we are doing things on an insane schedule.”
I asked Ms Lindsey if she thought that the airport could gain anything if it were privatised. “I had always been a die-hard opponent of privatisation, but not now. I have looked at what is going on overseas and concluded that the reason to support privatisation is usually down to a lack of capital, or a government structure that made it difficult to do what needs to be done in order to have a competitive airport.
“I would now have to say that for the last 15 years the latter applied to LAX, but we are getting over that now and the Mayor, the City Council and the airport commissioners are now tremendously supportive of making the change. I think the trick is going to be to make it sustainable in order to keep that support in order to re-invest in the operational integrity and business acumen that is necessary to run an airport.
“However, when you look at the price tags that go with some of the privatised airports, I think that the story has yet to unfold as to what the real implications of privatisation are. What happens in five or ten years from now? Is the reinvestment really there? Is it going to pay the mortgage?”
On the question of whether the US Government could do anything else to help LAX, Lindsey said that she thought the Federal Government had been: “pretty supportive of what we need to get done here,” adding that for the 15-year period mentioned earlier, the authorities had basically said: “let us know what you want to do and we will help you. If you are proposing anything that doesn’t meet our safety or security regulations then we are going to tell you, but providing you meet them we will try to help you get it done. That’s about as good as it gets, so I don’t think there is anything else they can do right now.”
Asked if LAWA had looked at other airports in order to ‘cherry pick’ the best ideas around, Ms Lindsey smiled: “Almost every one! Though I’m too busy here to go looking around myself, I’ve been in the industry long enough to have enough contacts to know that I can just pick up the phone and ask what works and doesn’t work for them. I’ve built up a good network of people that I can
share experiences with if and when we find a problem.
“From a facilities point of view we have invited people from other airports to come here and say to them, take two days to look at what we have and tell us what you think.”
From a business management standpoint we have worked with those running Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Francisco and San Jose airports in the recent past, plus the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority. “I’m not in contact with Seattle very often because even though it’s a pretty good airport and I was there for eleven years. When you are looking at things from a facilities point of view we are kind of unique here [LAX] because we have nine terminals. Figuring how to make those nine terminals work well within the configuration that is already in place is something that is outside of most people’s experience. We simply had to get the best planners, designers and architects and go from there.”
There is very little extra land available that the airport can expand into; it is already surrounded by built-up areas on three sides and the Pacific coast at its western end. It’s largely a case of having to make the most of what they already have. “Rebuilding the whole airport from scratch is not an option,” Ms Lindsey added.
Today & Tomorrow
LAWA is pursuing what is envisaged as a 30-year Master Plan for LAX.
The first element, the South Airfield Improvement Program, was completed in 2007. That one-year, $333-million project reconfigured the airport’s south runway complex to improve airfield safety after studies questioned the number of runway incursions that were occurring. A safety report on the LAX north airfield by a panel of academic experts concluded that the north airfield is: “extremely safe,” even under aircraft operation levels projected for 2020. The panel’s recommendation to not reconfigure the northern runways has been questioned by some and the report and accompanying comments will be included in a Special Plan Admendment Study on the North Airfield, as required in a legal settlement on the LAX Master Plan.
The preliminary LAX North Airfield Safety Study and appendices are available on the LAWA www.lawa.org website.
One significant segment of work that has just been completed is a $723.5-million renovation of the 26-year-old TBIT, which was due to end as this edition went to press. On time and within budget, the improvements it introduced included the fitting of new in-line x-ray screening equipment within the baggage handling system. This work allowed the removal of the large CTX machines that were located near to the check-in desks in the wake of 9/11, thereby creating a significant amount of extra floor space in the pre-security passenger area. In December 2009, LAWA and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of the US Department of Homeland Security secured $150 million in federal funds to complete the in-line baggage screening system in several terminals, allowing the whole departure process to be completed faster.
Much of its pre-security retail area has also been improved, the building’s overhead signage has been upgraded and parts of the arrivals area completely redeveloped.
The whole airport’s retail offerings were under the microscope following less than flattering reviews in passenger surveys. In fact, they were ranked near the bottom of the ratings list for major US airports and their disapproval rating was believed to be the reason why the average spend per passenger figures were disappointing.
The process of transforming the ageing retail outlets began by giving the results of a comprehensive competitive selection process for new concessions to the Los Angeles City Council’s Board of Referred Powers. The Board considered ten-year contracts for five food-and-beverage packages and three retail packages for Terminals 4, 5, 7 and 8. Two further retail packages were considered by the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners in a later public meeting.
The December 2010 expiration of the current concession leases in these four terminals prompted a concession competition for alternatives to the current situation. Requests for Proposals were issued in May 2009, five addenda were subsequently issued, and proposals were received in October.
In the food-and-beverage (F&B) area, LAWA stated its goal was to: “establish a setting where passengers are offered a unique LA experience with local and regional eateries provided by celebrity chefs and popular local restaurants.”
The F&B proposal opportunities covered 20 terminal locations totalling approximately 50,000 sq ft (4,645m2) comprising five packages ranging from two to seven units. Among 25 proposals received from eight companies, five packages were selected. Of these new concession concepts, 22 are based in Southern California.
In the retail area, LAWA’s said it wanted to provide passengers with a high-quality shopping experience that offered a “sense of place” reflecting the Los Angeles region. The retail proposal opportunities covered 22 terminal locations totalling approximately 20,000 sq ft (1,858 m2), in five packages ranging from one to eight units. Among 18 proposals received from eight companies, five packages were selected, 13 of which are headquartered in Southern California.
Ms Lindsey commented: “The selected retail concessions will add some well-established consumer brands and bring some of LA’s most distinctive businesses to LAX, the City’s front door to millions of people travelling through the airport.” The new concessions will replace existing restaurants and stores in the four terminals, as well as in converted public space. Work to replace the existing concessions will begin as soon as their respective leases expire at the end of this year, with completion of the new-look retail facilities expected to be built by the summer of 2011 and the new food-and-beverage units by the end of 2011.
However, the centrepiece of the work to be carried out over the years ahead is the Bradley West Project (BWP) and Midfield Concourse Project, both of which will extend LAX’s passenger capacity in a modular fashion – adding two concourses beyond the existing TBIT facility that are linked by bridges – as and when passenger levels demand them.
The BWP will greatly improve the current passenger experience as the new gates will elininate the need for international airlines to park their wide-body jets on the airport’s remote stands and bus passengers to and from the TBIT for processing.
Walsh Austin Joint Venture, Los Angeles, was awarded two contracts. One contract for $545,550,000 with a budgeted owner’s contingency for $61,410,000 amends an existing contract to include construction services for the Bradley West Gates Project, which will increase the airport’s international competitiveness. It includes nine new boarding gates on TBIT’s west side to supplement existing gates on the terminal’s east side; dual passenger loading bridges; concourses with larger passenger lounges/holding areas; aircraft tarmac areas and associated structures; and aircraft support equipment to accommodate new-generation aircraft such as the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787. The new boarding gates are scheduled for completion in 2012.
The second contract for $584,200,000, with a budgeted owner’s contingency of $66,710,000, for Bradley West Core Improvements, covers upgrades to the Federal Inspection Service/Customs and Border Protection facilities; the addition of secured corridors between Terminals 3, 4 and the TBIT so that connecting passengers do not have to exit the terminals and go through security screening again; and more than 1.25 million square feet for food/beverage and retail concessions and other passenger amenities located beyond passenger security screening. The core improvements are scheduled for completion in spring 2013, except the Great Hall, which is scheduled to ready in 2012 when the new boarding gates on the west side of TBIT are completed.
The first stage is the $1.545-billion BWP is already underway. A date hasn’t been set for the construction of the Midfield Concourse as yet.
The Ground Breaking ceremony for the BWP took place on February 22, 2010. This major modernization of the TBIT is the largest public works project in the City of Los Angeles’ history and looks set to create 4,000 Jobs during its three-year schedule. A bonus for the local population is that 90% of the construction workforce will come from the Southern California region, and nearly 40% of the workers will be residents of the City of Los Angeles and other communities near LAX. LAWA says the BWP is also expected to provide direct and secondary regional economic benefits, including the need for construction products and services associated with a large capital improvement project.
In the USA, the mayor’s office is very different to that of the UK. While a mayor’s position is largely ceremonial in the UK, their US counterparts have a far more powerful / political task to fulfil so it’s easy to see why some LA Mayors have played an important part in LAX’s development. The late Tom Bradley was the driving force behind the airport’s development prior to the LA Olympic Games in 1984 and today’s successor, Mayor Villaraigosa, appears to be behind the airport’s progress in a similar way. LAWA has stated that LAX’s modernization had been stalled prior to Mayor Villaraigosa’s election in 2005. He brokered the 2006 settlement of a lawsuit filed by seven public agencies and community groups against the LAX Master Plan. The settlement, approved by the Mayor and City Council, has enabled LAWA to precede with its current modernization efforts, including Bradley West, which LAWA believes will create a new world-class terminal that will put LAX in a position to take a leading role as an international gateway, serving customers and aircraft well into the 21st century.
At the BWP Ground Breaking ceremony this February Mayor Villaraigosa said: “Today marks another milestone in our effort to modernize the hub of Southern California’s air transportation system and restore it to the premier international gateway the airlines and our customers need and the City of Angels deserves. By modernizing the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, we will provide better service for passengers from around the world. Tourism and international trade are major contributors to Los Angeles’ economy that generate jobs and contribute to the City’s ability to retain its position in the ever-increasing competitive global marketplace. Improving the experience for travellers at LAX will put thousands of people to work now and for years to come.”
Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who chairs the City Council Committee that oversees the airport added: “Tourism has become the number one industry in Los Angeles, but we must do everything we can to ensure that visitors continue to come here. “Building this new terminal will help us attract airlines and travellers from all over the world, giving them the first-class airport experience they expect from a world-class city like LA. In these tough economic times, the modernization of Bradley West is essential to stimulating our economy, creating good new jobs, and nurturing our vital tourism industry.”
Ms Hahn was followed by Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district of responsibility includes LAX. He said: “When Mayor Villaraigosa and I brokered the LAX Legal Settlement Agreement, this is exactly what we envisioned; that the airport would work hand-in-hand with its neighbours to bring about real progress on modernizing LAX. This groundbreaking is a great victory for that process, for the LAX community, and for our city. It signals that consensus and cooperation are alive and well at LAX.”
As a mark of respect towards those who went before, Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the major Hollywood tourist sites, added: “This is a great, long-overdue project to expand the international gateway to Los Angeles. The late, great Mayor Tom Bradley will be smiling down on this ceremony from the skies.”
The President of Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners, Alan Rothenberg, stated that the emphasis of the airport’s modernization programme is to dramatically improve the passenger experience from kerbside to airside: “with a design that captures the spirit of Los Angeles.” He said that the BWP: “establishes new levels of passenger convenience, and exudes a sense of welcome and a comfortable pace for the harried traveller.”
LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey explained that the groundbreaking ceremony commemorated the years of planning and the significant work ahead to build international facilities worthy of the LAX name, adding: “A world of international travellers and the airlines that serve them have now come a giant step closer to the delivery of one of America’s premier international gateways.”
Roger Johnson, LAWA Deputy Executive Director for LAX Development, is leading and managing the design and construction of Bradley West, while Fentress Architects, the company that designed Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, and Denver International Airport in Colorado, is providing design services.
Construction is being performed by Walsh Austin Joint Venture, Los Angeles, which is comprised of Walsh Construction Company and Austin Commercial. Both have performed major public works projects at other US airports, including Chicago-O’Hare, Atlanta-Hartsfield, Dallas-Fort Worth, Sacramento, and Raleigh-Durham.
The chief architect behind LAX’s regeneration is Curtis Fentress, the principal-in-charge of Fentress Architects. Commenting on his impressive Bradley West Project Mr Fentress said: “This is a defining moment in the history of Los Angeles. The Bradley West terminal and future modernizations will establish a new regional icon that embodies the character of Los Angeles and transforms LAX into the airport of the future. It captures the rhythmic motion of waves and ocean swells, suggesting the LA culture that constantly reinvents itself.”
The new buildings will be created from flat-seam stainless steel stretching over column-free structures that deliver a theme and identity that complements the parabolic arches of the scene-setting LAX Theme Building.
The BWP is composed of approximately 1.25 million sq ft (116,129 m2) of new building area, including food/beverage and retail concessions, new premium lounge space, larger federal inspection/customs and border protection facilities and other passenger amenities. In addition, the new concourses will contain 15 new boarding gates and bigger passenger seating / holding areas designed to accommodate aircraft such as the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The new-generation aircraft gates, the Great Hall for concessions and other passenger amenities are scheduled for completion in December 2012 and the remainder of the project in 2013.
Funding for the Bradley West Project comes from LAX’s operating revenues, fees from airlines, passenger facility charges and airport revenue bond proceeds. No money from the City’s general fund will be used.
The project also will address LAWA’s quest for a ‘greener’ LAX. In accordance with Sustainable Design and Construction Guidelines LAWA released in 2007, its construction projects must: “optimize the use of recycled building materials, minimize the amount of energy used in construction, and optimize energy efficiency.” The architecture and construction of the new facilities are designed to achieve a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certification from the US Green Building Council.
In addition, LAWA says that as part of the programme’s environmental requirements and the project-level Environmental Impact Report, prepared in accordance with Los Angeles City and California state regulations and in consultation with community stakeholders, the construction project will incorporate practices developed to: “minimize adverse environmental impacts on the surrounding areas, including, but not limited to: designating specific routes construction vehicles must use when travelling to/from the site; recycling construction materials and demolition debris; reducing the number of trips by placing concrete mixers and other equipment on-site; retrofitting construction equipment with emission- and noise-reduction devices; and controlling dust.”
Passenger figures released by LAWA at the end of April that covered the first quarter of this year showed that LAX’s passenger traffic increased 5.4% to 13,314,854 compared to the same period last year.
Domestic traveller numbers rose 4.5%, while international climbed by 7.5%. Total air cargo volume for the first quarter was also up 24.6% compared to that of 2009.
“Since late last year we have seen a slow increase in passenger volume due to some improvement in the economy further assisted by additional service on existing routes from airlines like Continental, VAustralia and American Eagle,” said Ms Lindsey “A promising indicator for the immediate future is Alitalia’s decision to launch LAX-Rome service this summer and Allegiant Airlines expansion of service domestically. The next several months will confirm the extent to which recent upward movement in traffic is the foundation of a sustained pattern.” My final question was if the LAX team sold its experience to other airports on a consultancy basis. Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey replied: “No, we couldn’t possibly do that right now. We have our hands full at the moment and we have to learn how to do things right ourselves before we can advise anyone else what to do – and we are a long way from doing it right here at the moment. Five years from now though, LAX will be a very different place; but I will probably be on a life-support system by then!”