It’s not easy being an American airport these days. We may be the world’s top economy, but the world views our airports as substandard, with antiquated facilities, poor design and inconvenient connections among terminals and to their cities. Not one U.S. airport cracked the top 25 in the 2015 Skytrax survey of the world’s best airports.
Los Angeles International Airport has compared badly even among U.S. airports. Although LAX is the nation’s second-busiest airport and the world’s fifth-busiest, Skytrax ranks it a dismal 98th out of the top 100, right between Malta and Raleigh-Durham.
LAX knows it has a problem. Last week, Deborah Flint, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports (which operates LAX), said that changes are “needed yesterday,” citing choking traffic, poor wayfinding, inconvenient transit connections and an overall poor experience.
She made those remarks at the kickoff of what could be a game-changing solution: a $5 billion infrastructure plan with the ungainly name Landside Access Modernization Program (LAMP). LAMP’s centerpieces are a two-mile (3.2 kilometer) long automated people mover connecting the terminals with a consolidated rental car center to replace dozens of car-rental lots, transit centers and connections to rail lines, which are also currently under construction.
Anyone who’s traveled in L.A. in the last few years knows what a big deal this is. Everything here these days seems to boil down to curbing the ever-worsening traffic: more public transit, bike lanes, denser housing near Metro stops and more.
Now consider that all access into LAX is by road. Bottlenecks of buses, cars and shuttle vans for hotels, parking garages and rental car companies are commonplace at its 8 busy terminals. Officials estimate that the shuttle vans alone account for 40 percent of the traffic into the airport.
Future rental car customers will be able to take the people mover to the rental car center, while other travelers will be able to meet other shuttles and transit at two (again ungainly named) Intermodal Transit Centers.
Flint said that the goal is to complete LAMP in rapid succession, “in no case later than 2023.” “How is that rapid?” you ask? Consider the complexity of building the people mover above and around current facilities, and getting buy-in from neighborhoods and other constituencies.
As if the airport’s condition alone wasn’t reason enough to move quickly, the 2023 date is important because L.A. is America’s choice to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, and the city has to spiff up. LAX’s last major overhaul was just before the last time the city hosted the Olympics, in 1984.
At a forum for prospective bidders to build and operate these various facilities, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council members appeared to show a unified front and emphasize the importance of this project to the city, particularly that processes would be streamlined for quick completion.
All of this is happening amidst ever-increasing passenger numbers. In 2015, LAX saw a record 74.9 million passengers, up 6% from 2014. Officials expect that to increase to 95 million in the next two decades.
By the way, it’s not as if LAX hasn’t improved in the last few years. A glitzy 2013 update to the Tom Bradley International Terminal – gateway for overseas travelers – changed perceptions virtually overnight, airlines have been investing about $1 billion in terminal renovations, authorities have allowed alternative transport such as Uber and Lyft, and branches of well-regarded local restaurants have replaced chain dining throughout the airport.