Up All Night With Delta During the Great LAX Terminal Shuffle

On Friday night, an army of orange and green vests gathered outside Delta’s makeshift command center sitting atop the surface parking lot outside Los Angeles International Airport’s Terminal 6. The long-awaited LAX terminal shuffle was about to begin, and the air was filled with a mix of anticipation, anxiety, and excitement. Delta invited me to tag along and observe the complicated dance that had to occur in a very short amount of time that first night of the move.

The logistical nightmare was necessary when Delta agreed with the airport to move its operations from Terminals 5 and 6 on the south side to Terminals 2 and 3 on the north. To make that happen, Delta had to pay for a total of 28 airlines to relocate in a phased approach. Some smaller moves had already occurred, but the big event was broken down into three separate nights, each two days apart. Friday was the first night and saw the most airlines need to relocate.

By Saturday morning, Delta would lose some gates in Terminals 5 and 6 and gain seven in Terminal 3 overnight. For that to happen, Virgin America would move from Terminal 3 to Terminal 6 where it would join its merger partner Alaska. (Tiny Boutique Air would make the same switch.) Allegiant and Frontier would leave Terminal 3 for Terminal 5 while Sun Country would join them from Terminal 2. Virgin Australia would still depart from the Bradley Terminal, but its check-in counter would move from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2. Lastly, Volaris would continue to check people in at Terminal 2 but it’s airplanes would begin flying from Bradley. Buses would obviously be needed. There were a lot of moving parts.

To prepare, both Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) and Delta had waged an informational campaign. They sent emails, blasted texts, took out ads, and even got Uber and Lyft to provide notices in their apps. In case you missed all that, they took out a billboard right at the traffic-choked entrance to the airport.

As I crawled past just before 9pm, I couldn’t help but think about everything that could go wrong. Even if everything went right, there would still be mass confusion with Delta operating flights at 5 separate terminals at one point during the transition week.

Outside the command center, movers were getting ready to do their jobs. But on the inside, it was quiet. I wound my way back to the “Pacific Room” where media outlets were gathering. It wasn’t until after 10pm that we were handed vests of our own, and we moved out to see the action.

The move had quietly begun around 9pm, and by the time we reached Terminal 2, movers had pulled up and were beginning to unload boxes to pick up equipment and start to move airlines out.

The signs outside had yet to be changed since it wouldn’t be official until after midnight. But it was easy to see that these temporary sign covers could be removed easily when the time came.

We soon walked over to Terminal 3 where the last check-ins for Virgin America were being processed. We ducked underneath the building and hopped on a bus to ride over to Terminal 5. I took one final look at the line-up of Virgin America tails knowing that we wouldn’t see this sight again on this side of the airport.

We wound our way over to Terminal 5 to find a shiny new 737-900 waiting at gate 51B. As part of this move, Delta would have to tow three airplanes over to Terminal 3 to be ready for morning departures. Two of them were regionals, but this third one, which had just arrived from Honolulu was slated for the early morning flight to Detroit.

As the clock struck midnight, we watched and waited for the tow to begin. As we waited, we could see activity picking up with other airlines. An Allegiant A319 pulled up at gate 51A, ready for its flight the following morning.

When we followed the Delta 737 over to the other side of the airport, we saw more than one Virgin America aircraft being taken over to the south side to be united with Alaska.

On the north side, we found ourselves in a long caravan of ground equipment and moving trucks making their way to Delta’s new home. We pulled ahead of the 737 so we could be on the ground and in position to capture the first Delta aircraft to be brought in to Terminal 3. There, the tables were turned with an Allegiant A319 preparing to be towed while our aircraft came in.

Right next to us, we could see the biggest construction project in the short-term at Terminal 3: a dedicated bus gate for the semi-permanent shuttles that will connect Terminals 2, 3, and the Bradley Terminal for years to come until a behind-security connector can be built. This should open in the next couple weeks.

Up above we could see the terminal had come to life with workers. The last Virgin America flight had arrived at 11:48pm from New York/JFK. Delta’s first arriving passengers would come in just before 5am from Maui. That wasn’t a lot of time. From the outside, we could see the soft purple moodlighting in the Virgin America Loft lounge create a silhouette of workers in hard hats taking pickaxes and sledgehammers to the place. By the 17th, it had to be ready to serve its purpose as a Sky Club.

We walked upstairs into the terminal itself and it was a mad-house. There was new carpeting and seating in the terminal. Delta-branded stickers saying that power was coming soon to those seats had already been slapped on.

Virgin America logos were pulled down and Delta’s blue covered the old red. Delta logos slowly began appearing.

The biggest and most important task was getting the tech infrastructure done. People were working furiously to get Delta’s system up and running.

Meanwhile, workers put up a temporary wall on the inside. This would mask the work Delta would do to install a bar in there. Undoubtedly this was necessary to help people drink their way through the Terminal 3 experience until it could be improved through renovations years down the line.

Inside, we found Delta’s VP of Sales-West Ranjan Goswami there and ready to help. He and the whole Delta team had basically taken over the Hyatt just outside LAX so they could work and then take breaks once exhaustion took over. Ranjan was there for the long-haul, likely a welcome sign of support for the front line.

It was now after 1am and we walked out back to the ticket counter area. Work had begun on the old Virgin America counter to house the Latin airlines (Copa, Interjet, and Avianca) that will have flights in the Bradley Terminal but check-in at Terminal 3. Only Copa’s needed to be operating by Saturday with the other moves coming later.

On the east side, Spirit’s ticket counter remained intact on one end while JetBlue’s was on the other. But in the middle, logos for Allegiant and Frontier were pulled down to make room for Delta’s new counter. Next to them was the logo of the short-lived and long-defunct Biz Air Shuttle. That wasn’t even pulled down but simply prepared to be covered over.

Outside, roaming bands of trucks went to work on changing signs. That old covered Terminal 3 sign had been removed to find an ugly updated version with Delta on it. This was obviously not the final state of things.

On the so-called “barrel signs” outside the terminal, workers rushed to match the airlines with the right terminal. Here they were putting up Virgin Australia’s sign at Terminal 2.

At this point, exhaustion and hunger began to set in. Though there would be additional equipment moved throughout the night, there wasn’t going to be any big action for us to see for some time. I took off with someone from Delta and drove to the 24 hour McDonald’s on Century Blvd for some breakfast and caffeine.

Back after 3am, work had progressed. The kiosks in Terminal 2 were in place and bubble-wrapped, prepared for the next phase on Sunday night when Delta would move into Terminal 2, returning it to the home of Northwest for many years before the airlines merged.

Meanwhile in Terminal 3, the IT workers raced against the clock to get the systems functioning in time for the scheduled 4am opening. (They would miss that deadline. The counter didn’t open until about half an hour later.)

By 3:30am, passengers had started to arrive. Delta and LAWA had warned people to show up an extra hour early, so with flights leaving before 7am, people began to arrive even before the ticket counter was expected to open. Signage still wasn’t up, and while people were patient, they looked somewhat confused.

It wasn’t long before we found the first person, an elderly man, who had ended up in the wrong terminal. His flight to Atlanta was leaving from Terminal 5, but presumably he simply saw “Delta” on the Terminal 3 sign and thought that was the right place to be. This would undoubtedly be the first of many.

Before 4am, the first temporary signs began going up, covering the Biz Air Shuttle logo as well as the green Frontier background.

I had hoped to stick around longer to see the counter open, but we were instead whisked back behind security to prepare for the first flight to arrive at Terminal 3 with passengers. Flight 1455 from Kahului, Maui was a bit early, arriving just before 5am.

On the ramp we found that dozens of rampers had shown up to welcome the first flight to Delta’s new home. If I worked for Delta, I would have found this incredibly exciting. It was the beginning of an enormous investment in growing and improving Los Angeles. People did seem to be in a very good mood for such an early hour.

After huddling for a briefing and preparing for the arrival, I walked up to the top of the stairs outside gate 37A and watched the scene as anticipation built.

As the aircraft pulled in, I hunkered down on the stairs at the top of the jet bridge with Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren and we livestreamed the arrival.

Once that was done, we made our way into the terminal where the scene was just as chaotic as before. Only this time, it was a mix of workers trying to clean up debris and fix IT (some gates were working, but the rest weren’t expected to be up until 7:30am when they were needed), employees, and weary passengers obviously already unhappy to be leaving Hawai’i only to be bombarded with a flurry of action.

Now after 5am, the sun had begun to rise, and I crawled out past security to the ticket counter. The backgrounds were now up completely and systems were working. Lines were virtually non-existent. Wandering the halls inside and out were armies of Delta folks wearing vests that said “Ask Me.” People had apparently come in from all parts of the Delta system to help out.

There were plenty of passenger questions, and Delta’s green team was trying to answer them. Clearly not all were equipped to answer everything, and there did seem to be some confusion and frustration among the passengers. I’m sure that’s going to be a frequent theme this week.

At that point, I was spent, and it was time to head home. Overall, it seemed like things had gone well with only minor issues, but it was hard to know for sure. It was apparent early that Delta front-line employees were told to either parrot the company line or not talk to the media at all. Most people turned cold and refused to speak with me. It was unfortunate since it seemed like there was a lot to crow about. Still, I was able to speak to some people under the close watch of corp comm throughout the evening, and I’m hoping to turn what I have into a podcast soon, if there’s enough meat on that bone.

In the meantime, I’ll be watching operations and social media to try to get a real sense of how the transition is going until it’s completed Wednesday morning.

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40 Comments on "Up All Night With Delta During the Great LAX Terminal Shuffle"

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rlwahl
Member

L

Sent from IPad

cahilldot
Member

fun at LAX!!

DOTTI

A
Guest

Was wondering if you’d get a close look at that flip. Hopefully all runs smooth today. Personally I’m giving them time to work out the kinks. Flying into SNA instead for a while.

Bill from DC
Guest

Glad you got to do that Brett, thanks for the write-up!

One question – why would airlines that use TBIT have check in desks in other terminals? Not enough counter space in TBIT? Seems rather silly.

David M
Guest

From what I’ve heard, lack of TBIT counter space is indeed the problem.

IO
Member

CF – great job and thanks for bringing us a report from the front-lines of this “DL Airlines: extreme make over edition”. Sounds like the “gag” on the DL employees was excessive.

David SF eastbay
Member

Was Delta smart enough to schedule less flights this week to make it less chaotic?

Eric A.
Member

Great behind the scenes and reveal. Of course there will be huge kinks but it sounds like a well executed project.
Unfortunately you can’t fix stupid; I remember hearing stories back in the day of people still showing up at Stapleton weeks after DIA opened.

Tim Dunn
Member
Several things are particularly notable about the move and the coverage of it. First, most people seemed to be prepared for it and the process is going smoothly. The whole thing – by far the biggest undertaking of its kind – was well planned. Second is that the media was given fairly decent access to the whole process which helped to increase public knowledge. The typical norms about airline employee-media interaction are still in place. Third is the number of parties that are happy with the move including JetBlue and Virgin America which saved a lot of their own cash… Read more »
scotshea
Member

Brett,

Wonderful read on Delta’s move at LAX. As a DL retiree (1973-2002) living in Atlanta I had read a bit about the incredible logistics that were/are to take place, but your article took me right there. The only thing missing was a virtual reality headset! Always enjoy your columns!

Rowdy Yates
Guest

Terminal 3 will take some time to repair (thanks TWA) but the immediate benefit to DL is the shorter taxi time to and from the runways this morning.

ChuckMO
Guest

TWA has been gone from T3 for 16 years. Shouldn’t you “thank” JetBlue, Spirit and Virgin America?

Bill from DC
Guest

How about thanks LAWA? None of those airlines had enough presence to make it worth their investment. Hell NK wouldn’t care if they lined up porta potties if it allowed them to pay a lower airport fee.

Jimmy
Guest

Will the shuttles between terminals continue? I have my last Alaska to Delta connection at LAX this summer and it looks like they’re now on opposite sides of the airport.

Anthony
Member

Thanks for the fun report on what was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event (a terminal swap of this scale, I mean).

DesertGhost
Guest

Talk about dedication! Thanks for the enlightening report.

stuartborden
Member

Great article and photos/video! Thanks for posting.

kevinaalexander
Member

Great read! Thanks for doing this. Shame no one felt comfortable speaking with you on the record.

Kirk
Member

Standard policy at just about every company: refer media comments to the Communications Dept. Nothing surprising there

kevinaalexander
Member

I know.

It was more a rhetorical statement than anything. Still, for a “good news story” like this, having someone actually involved say something instead of CorpComm would be a refreshing change.

Mike
Guest
This is also a good move for AA, the forgotten beneficiary here. They were able to swap gates into T5 from T6, are more consolidated and have ability to negotiate more room in T5 in the future. Now the question is: will UA pull the trigger on T9? That would be an amazing upgrade to LAX. UA would get a new checkin facility and more, modern gates, T7/8 would be more like concourses/wings and T7 would make room for UA partners, and UA would no longer have any need for the old CO T6 rotunda gates. That would free up… Read more »
Tim Dunn
Member
Just about every carrier benefitted from the move. AA and AS both consolidated with AS likely ending up better off than anyone – nearly all of a refurbished terminal 6 and getting AS and VX far faster than most terminal moves happen after mergers. A T0 and T9 would greatly expand airport capacity but the next series of expansions get much more expensive and logistically challenging. AA is reportedly talking with LAWA about gaining all of Terminal 5 and presumably wants to move all other carriers into the MSC, for which AA is likely willing to sacrifice its hangar and… Read more »
Kirk
Member

I think UA has shown they are in way over their heads trying to run the airline they already have. I can’t see them taking on new projects

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