A Massive LAX Redo Could Transform the Airport Nobody Loves Into One Everybody Loves

A guide to the $14 billion effort that will change the face of the country’s second-busiest airport

The nation’s second-busiest airport is also one of its least popular. A recent flier survey ranked Los Angeles International Airport second from the bottom (sorry, Newark). It wasn’t always this way. “Charles Lindbergh flew out of here,” says airport historian Ethel Pattison, who has worked at LAX for 62 years. Pattison remembers that first airport, Mines Field, as “a dirt patch with just rabbits running around.” Everything changed in 1961 with a “jet age” modernization project that brought us the terminal loop and the landmark Theme Building.

An expansion just before the 1984 Olympics doubled the square footage with revamped terminals, multilevel parking structures, and that upper level roadway, and for a while it was good. But air travel has more than doubled since those days, growing from 33 million passengers in 1983 to 85 million a year today, and the aging infrastructure needs replacing. Then there are the ad hoc security lines, dingy waiting areas, and the tangle of cars outside.

The traffic congestion is only going to intensify in the near term, but it’s for a good cause: LAX is undergoing a massive renovation. The $14 billion effort, officially known as the Landside Access Modernization Program, is one of the largest public works projects in California history and will be going on until 2023. To get a taste of how good things can be, look to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, rebuilt in 2013 with a roomier layout, arty design, waiting areas endowed with scads of electrical outlets, and outposts from well-known L.A. restaurants (the erstwhile ink.sack lives on here!). Now imagine riding in on the sort of people mover that so many airports already have. That’s not all, though. See for yourself with this navigational guide.

The People Mover

Start date: 2018 Completion date: 2023

Illustrations by sinelab

It’s hard to believe, but five years from now the new spine of the airport will be an automated people mover. The driverless electric train will glide on rubber tires along 2 ¼ miles of elevated guideway, a sculptural beam that connects six stops: a forthcoming of-site parking structure, a giant new rental car facility, a new Metro hub, and several terminals. Along the way it will arc around the Theme Building, and the tapered edge of the track will glow with an embedded ribbon of light.

“We’re getting back to the original architectural DNA of the airport and that very simple aesthetic of midcentury modern design,” says the airport’s chief architect, Ellen Wright. According to Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the city department that runs the airport, the system is supposed to accommodate 10,000 riders each hour, with trams pulling into the stations every two minutes. The longest trip will take no more than ten minutes.

The Rail Connection 

Start date: 2018 Completion date: 2023

As many a dismayed tourist will tell you, it’s ridiculous that L.A.’s light rail line ends two miles from LAX. The situation improves slightly next year, when an extension of the Green Line will join with the new Crenshaw/LAX Line at Aviation Boulevard and 96th Street. That’s still 1.7 miles from the nearest terminal, but the people mover will close the gap in 2023, linking with the Metro station being built there.

“It’s a very fluid, seamless connection from the airport people mover to the Metro system,” says Wright. So in theory your cousin from some more rail-centric metropolis can ride the train from LAX all the way to Hollywood and Highland without ever adding to our world-famous congestion. Until the people mover comes into play, though, a shuttle will bridge the distance between the airport and the new Metro station.

Enormous New Wing

Start date: 2019 Completion date: 2023

Don’t let the mundane name of the consolidated rent-a-car facility fool you. With a footprint equal to LAX’s entire terminal area, conRAC is big—so big, in fact, that the homes, apartments, and schools of the neighborhood formerly known as Manchester Square are being razed to make room for it. Bordered by Arbor Vitae Street on the north, La Cienega Boulevard on the east, Aviation Boulevard on the west, and Century Boulevard on the south, the facility will hug the 405 and mark the people mover’s eastern terminus. Here are three key details:

Rentals: The 6 million-square foot  complex will replace the current scattering of rental car lots, combining rental offices, cleaning and fueling facilities, and storage for more than 20,000 vehicles. Bonus: The people mover will eliminate rental-car shuttles from the LAX loop. Expect the existing rental lots to be redeveloped with hotels.

Parking: “We’ve thought a lot about the changes that autonomous vehicles are going to bring,” says Wright. The architect is planning for parking garages that might someday be converted into housing or hotel rooms, with flat floors, exterior ramps that can be removed, and higher ceilings to accommodate heating and cooling systems.

The Core: A glassy three-level box known as a core will house escalators and elevators between the ground floor and the people mover. It’s one of six being installed around LAX. “The cores,” says LAWA spokesperson Mark Waier, “really are the new ceremonial front doors to the airport.” Here are some other things to know about them.

Inner Core

Access: They’ll be at each of the six people mover stations—at conRAC, the terminals, the off-site parking structure, and the Metro station. The 70-foot-high buildings will offer access to the different levels of the airport—for ticketing, baggage, security, etcetera.

Efficiency: The top floor of each core will be an open-air train platform landscaped with drought tolerant California native plants. The structures are expected to rely heavily on solar power and will be LEED silver-rated. A dramatic canopy overhang will help unify the look and, maybe more important, make them easy to identify for faster wayfinding.

Art: One stop, dubbed the “Experience L.A. Center,” will feature a giant LED screen touting the sights of the city. Another will have a viewing platform to admire the shuttered Theme Building, and all will figure heavily into LAX’s public-art program.

Transforming Terminals 

Completion date: summer 2018 to end of 2023, varies by terminal 

Illustrations by sinelab

The first version of LAX—the one LAX historian Ethel Pattison remembers rising from “barren ground”—wasn’t loaded with bonus features beyond the Theme Building. Fifty years of airport evolution have brought us failed experiments in unreliable helicopter shuttles, inflatable terminals, even a proposal for a runway at sea.

The wholesale revamp in 1983 was far more of a success, but the airport has been well past due for upgrades beyond the piecemeal tweaks to the dining options we’ve seen over the years. Outside, the installation of those 26 luminescent pylons by artist Paul Tzanetopoulos in 2000 added a little nocturnal pizzazz (though during the day they can resemble the industrial smokestacks of an Eastern Bloc factory). Angular, propeller-like light poles have added spark along the upper deck. And the undulating roofline of the new international terminal has undeniable appeal.

Now the airport’s interior spaces are receiving improvements that, at an average of $760 million per terminal, should help do away with the beaten-down corridors that we’ve all come to know. Some terminals are being entirely reconfigured in a years-long process, while others are undergoing work that should be finished by year’s end.

Shopping: Westfield, which recently gave its Century City shopping center a billion-dollar upgrade, is revamping the retail components of the terminals. Southwest’s Terminal 1 alone will see 20 new shops by the time it’s all done later this year, including a Kiehl’s skin-care shop and a MAC cosmetics store. The new storefronts will be open and airy, trying to capture the indoor-outdoor mood of the city—inside a secure fortress.

Food: Westfield is also reworking the dining options. Terminal 3 already has a Shake Shack; and Terminal 4, an outpost of French dip purveyor Cole’s. Soon in Terminal 1 you’ll be able to get a fried-egg-and-avocado burger from Koreatown staple Cassell’s or a matcha green tea latte from Urth Cafe before walking the gangway. Planners want to create a sense of place. You know you’re in L.A. when you see the welcoming scowl of Danny Trejo at Trejo’s Tacos.

Decor: “The Theme Building and its midcentury modern design was an influence for the design of the whole airport project,” says spokesperson Waier. Ask the folks at LAWA, and they’ll tell you they’re aiming for a futuristic look with an emphasis on openness, natural light, and clean lines. In the next five years or so you may even be able to nap in a private sleep pod rather than snoozing slack-jawed in the seating area.

Bathrooms: Shoddy restrooms are a top complaint LAX hears from travelers. So the airport is rebuilding old bathrooms and adding new ones. You can catch a glimpse of the #restroomofthefuture in Terminal 4, where smart lights on the ceiling above each stall turn red or green depending on whether a door is locked. A computer tracks foot traffic to signal when it’s time for more upkeep, and there’s a touch screen to let passengers flag maintenance problems.

Easing the Wait 

Illustrations by sinelab

Travel is stressful. Nicer, more efficient digs will ease nerves, but LAX has been rolling out other measures to help flyers keep calm with their carry-on.

Seven or eight angst-relieving therapy dogs meet passengers in several terminals a couple of hours a week. Downtown’s Grand Performances has partnered with LAX to put on 18 shows—classical music, DJ sets, dancing—spread over six terminals. Members of the elite crowd willing to pay thousands extra can access the Private Suite, which opened last May near the south runway, offering a paparazzi-free space to lounge, spa treatments, and a BMW ride to the runway. And starting next year military members and their families will have access to the USO’s 24-hour relaxation station under the Theme Building.

LAX is also mulling a curbside concierge to escort you to the boarding gate and has a human-size robotic assistant on her way to give directions, tell jokes, and remind you of the terrifying future that awaits.

Faster Security 

In a better world, there’d be no need for security (or leaf blowers, but that’s of-topic). In the world we occupy, though, at least we can look forward to technology streamlining the passenger-screening experience while also keeping people, you know, safe. The old terminals weren’t created with post-9/11 security lines in mind. The reconfigured ones are supposed to be more accommodating and will, of course, feature the latest technology. In fact, the Transportation Safety Administration as well as U.S. Customs and Border Protection are already stitching futuristic improvements into the process. Here are four of them:

Biometric Screening: Earlier this year British Airways and Lufthansa began experimenting in the Tom Bradley International Terminal with checking in some flyers using facial recognition. “Your face is your ticket,” says Waier. It’s the first program of its kind in the U.S., and Qantas and Korean Air will be the next to try the system.

Passport: Terminal 2 and the international terminal are also home to 190 automated kiosks. After presenting a series of basic questions onscreen, the Automated Passport Control machine, which looks like a gas station ATM, adjusts to your height, snaps your photo, and spits out a receipt that speeds your trip through customs.

Body Scanners: If you’ve been to the international terminal recently, something else you may have noticed: new body scanners. More sensitive than the old models, they don’t require you to raise your arms, which, if nothing else, can simplify the process and make it feel a little less like you’re being held up.

Automated Screening Lanes: A new system of automated screening lanes speeds up bag checks with five times as many loading stations. “It’s like when you’re standing in line at CVS and one of the registers opens up,” says Waier. “You can bypass people who are taking a bit longer.” Expect larger bins and an RFID system to keep track of everything.


LAX’s Chief of Experience, Barbara Yamamoto, on how—and why—the airport is embracing arts:

“There’s a whole mind-set shift. It’s thinking not of getting people from A to B; what they do and how you treat them as part of their journey is more the focus. People are arriving earlier at the airport and tend to have longer dwell times. Airports have become more than just a transportation hub, so we’re looking to provide experiences for all our guests, from visual arts to performing arts.”

RELATED: Here’s What the New Metro Station at LAX Will Look Like

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