An iconic airport in an iconic city, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is now officially the fourth busiest gateway on the planet after handling 80.9 million in 2016.
The 8% upturn on 2015 means that LAX handled 18.5 million passengers more last year than it did in 2007, and the timeless popularity of Los Angeles and the Californian dream ensures that these numbers will continue to rise in the decades ahead no matter what life has in store for the aviation industry.
What this means is that like a Hollywood film star seeking longevity, LAX will have to continue to adapt to changing times in order to maintain its appeal and have the capacity to meet future demand.
Luckily, its reinvention started a few years ago with the 2013 opening of the showpiece Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) and, in true box office style, the new infrastructure keeps coming.
Over the last two years in collaboration with its airline partners and Westfield, Terminal 2, 5 and 6 have been upgraded or redesigned and TBIT and Terminal 4 finally linked by a new connector building.
Next up is a new $1.6 billion Midfield Satellite Concourse (MSC) – effectively a 750,000 square foot extension to TBIT – and ongoing upgrades in Terminal 1 and Terminal 7, in addition to planned airfield enhancements and a separate $5.5 billion project to improve landside access.
The latter project officially known as the Landside Access Modernization Program (LAMP) will result in the building of the world’s largest Consolidated Rent-A-Car (CONRAC) facility and a new 2.25-mile Automated People Mover system designed to help relieve congestion in the Central Terminal Area.
Its list of achievements and planned projects means that nobody could really accuse LAX of failing to realise that it has to act now in order to raise its operational efficiency and customer service levels as well as its capacity to ensure that it is equipped to meet future demand.
Indeed, more than $3 million a day is currently being spent on nearly 50 different projects at LAX as part of the continuing work on its $14 billion modernisation programme.
“We are creating an experience that makes a great first and last impression of Los Angeles,” enthuses Los Angeles World Airport’s executive director, Deborah Flint. “Our focus is on delivering a gold-standard airport that shines with the top-rated airports around the world.”
Midfield Satellite Concourse
Connected to TBIT by a 1,000ft underground pedestrian tunnel with moving walkways, the five-level MSC will provide the nation’s second busiest airport with 12 new gates that are expected to reduce LAX’s current reliance on remote gates on the west side of the airfield, which lack passenger services, concessions and other amenities.
Complementing the architecture of TBIT, the new concourse will feature a roof emulating an ocean wave prior to breaking on the shore.
Its interior will include 44,000 square feet of ‘LA-centric’ food-and-beverage and retail offerings, along with 60,000 square feet of airline club space between the concourse and TBIT Gateway.
And according to LAWA, the new building design allows for current and future technology enhancements, making it one of the smartest concourses in the world for passengers.
Flight information displays will include scanners that allow passengers to receive personalised maps on their boarding passes, for example. The MSC will also have automated boarding gates that make use of biometrics and beacon technology.
The environment has not been forgotten either as the new concourse is being designed with sustainability in mind, with LAWA’s stated intention to achieve LEED Silver and CAL Green Tier 1 certifications.
LAWA says its sustainable feature will include using daylight wherever possible, energy and water conservation, reducing heat generated by building roofs and pavement and using recycled materials.
Flint promises: “The Midfield Satellite Concourse will be built with sustainability principles and architectural features that reflect Los Angeles with great views and natural daylight.
“It will greatly enhance the guest experience at LAX and provide them with a new concourse ready for the technology enhancements of tomorrow.”
Traffic forecast and route development
With traffic already well over 4% up on this time last year, LAX is currently on target to handle in excess of 83 million passengers in 2017. And with the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) predicting that LAX could see 100 million passengers annually by 2040, the need for new infrastructure and state-of-the-art IT systems to make passenger processing faster, more efficient and customer friendly is obvious.
A total of 68 airlines serve LAX today operating non-stop services to 91 domestic and 78 international destinations across the globe. They will be joined by two more international carriers this summer.
Flint notes that the current growth is being driven by the strength of the LA market due to business, tourism and the diversity of people in Los Angeles. New international carriers, additional frequencies and new routes have fuelled international traffic growth, which has witnessed a 20% rise in widebody departures over the past two years.
She says that she is quietly satisfied with LAX’s route network, but admits that new routes to Asia and Southeast Asia are on her wish list. “I see future opportunities to connect LA to many more destinations around the world that are still unserved,” notes Flint.
Such is the importance that LAX places on IT that Flint recently appointed Justin Erbacci as LAWA’s first ever chief innovation and technology officer.
Erbacci, a deputy executive director, will be responsible for LAWA’s overall information technology vision, strategies and operations and as such will focus on identifying and implementing innovative technologies and processes to change the airport environment and improve the airport guest experience.
Does his appointment mean that the airport expects IT to play an even greater role in boosting LAX’s capacity and enhancing the passenger journey and their ‘airport experience’ in the future?
Flint tells Airport World: “Information technology plays a critical and an integral role to all airport functions from security and safety, airfield and landside operations to how we innovate and communicate with our business partners and community stakeholders, as well as how our guests experience our airports.
“Justin will develop a new vision and execute new strategies to address the ever-growing demand for the latest in technological innovations, as well as with the implementation of the $5.5-billion LAX Landside Access Modernization Program. With his expertise we will be a digital ready airport across the board.”
How important does LAWA take customer service? “It is one of our top priorities,” says Flint, noting that the retail and F&B offerings in LAX’s terminals have been transformed in the last few years.
“We are making significant investments to consider the guest experience in all that we do,” she enthuses.
“From how we implement the Capital Development Program to changing our business model in order to address what our guests should experience when they travel through LAX or Van Nuys Airport.”
Deborah Flint with Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti (centre), and co-CEO of Westfield, Peter Lowy, at the unveiling of LAX’s new-look Terminal 2.
The bigger picture
LAX, of course, isn’t alone in needing to upgrade its infrastructure in order to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.
In fact, ACI-NA recently revealed that over $100 billion needs to be invested on US airport infrastructure in the next five years to accommodate growth in passenger and cargo activity.
Does the size of this figure surprise Flint and does she believe that going forward it is inevitable that we will see more P3 projects in the US like the concession for LaGuardia’s Terminal B or San Juan in Puerto Rico?
The likeable Flint admits that she isn’t surprised by the infrastructure needs of US airports, but is quick to point out that there is no one size fits all solution.
“Flexibility and local control are essential,” she says. “Airports across this country face unique challenges and have excellent talent and local oversight to create the solutions that are best for them.
“My peers wake up every day visioning how we can improve air travel because we know how important air travel is to the world around us.”
In her capacity as boss of LAX and a board member of ACI World, Flint was one of the aviation industry representatives invited to meet new US President, Donald Trump, earlier this year to discuss ways of improving the US airport system.
She felt the meeting went well although is not in agreement with the president that the US currently operates “obsolete airports, an obsolete plane system, obsolete trains and bad roads”.
“We learned that the new president is a fan of aviation and well understands that airports are powerful economic generators that provide good sustainable jobs,” she says.
“Our message is to grant airports the tools for investment to address this imminent need, foster competition and industry growth – all which are great for the customer and the local communities in every state.”
Life is certainly far from dull for Flint as she fast approaches the end of her second year in charge of LAWA thinking about the best way forward for not only LAX but the entire US airport system.