LAX Reveals Plans for Nice but Very Expensive Bradley West Terminal Expansion

Airport Experience, LAX - Los Angeles

I know, I know. I’ve had a fair number of posts on LAX lately, and I’m sorry about that for those not impacted by this airport. But I think this should be the last one for a little while.

As we all know, LAX is not exactly the world’s favorite airport. In fact, most people who have to fly through the the place, especially from an international perspective, find it to be a miserable experience. This is definitely not a secret, but after many proposed fixes kept failing to happen, I think most just figured it would never change. I had the chance to attend a reception last week where they unveiled the latest design effort to fix the place up. What do I think? It’s a beautiful design, but it’s a complete and total waste of money.

Let’s start with the good. Here’s a shot of what it will look like. This would be the view if I were looking from the ocean toward the east.


As you can see, it will ultimately add two concourses to the Bradley Terminal with a host of other stuff in there as well. Fentress Architects, the same people that did Denver’s airport, came up with the design, and they were at the reception to explain to everyone how it took the LA environment into account and incorporated the ocean, the mountains, etc. They even said, and I swear I’m not making this up, that they’re trying to change “LAX into LA-Wow.” Now I’m the first to admit that I’m not a design kind of guy, but I suppose I understand what they were trying to do. My problem is that they shouldn’t have been trying to do it.

We heard a lot from Roger Johnson, Deputy Executive Director of LAWA and head of this project, about how this is going to be an airport that people talk about. It’s going to be an airport that when people arrive, they tell their friends and family that they have to go see it. Who the heck cares? I want an airport that’s easy. I don’t care if it’s pretty. If you go for “pretty,” you end up wasting money (at least $6 or 7 billion in this case) on something that ultimately either leads to higher airfares or loss of flights because it’s too expensive to fly there. To make it a little more clear what they’re trying to do, I’ve gone back to Google Maps. First up we have the plans for Phase I.

Bradley Phase I

So, in the first phase, they’re going to build a new concourse to replace the existing one at the Bradley Terminal. The north side will open in Jan 2012 with the south side opening in July of that year. They’re staggered because of the way they need to knock down the old one to keep enough gates operating during construction. You will notice that the current A380 gate on the north side will actually stick around after this is done because it’s grandfathered in and can’t be replaced.

They will also replace the two side security areas with one large one in the middle of the existing facility. All of this should be completed by September 2013 with a price tag of around $2 billion. That’s right. We get 14 gates, 3 more than before, along with a new fire station and some taxiway changes for a mere $2 billion. Keep in mind that JetBlue built an entirely new terminal in New York with 26 gates for $800 million (though they didn’t have to move taxiways around). This money is all being spent on what Roger Johnson admitted was an “expensive concept.”

But the absurdity really doesn’t begin until Phase II. This part hasn’t been funded yet, but it is expected to cost $3 to 4 billion. (I’ll put money down that the costs double by the time it’s done.) Here’s my map of the second phase.

Bradley Phase II

As you can see, they will now build an additional concourse further to the west. The parking lots for Terminals 3/4 will now be razed and replaced with a new “Central Terminal Area” to serve the midfield concourse. There will be underground parking (and the TSA is ok with this?) to replace the existing parking lots. An above ground people mover (high enough to accommodate an A380 underneath) will connect the CTA, existing Bradley, and the new midfield concourse. But the most shocking thing is that the CTA will only serve the midfield concourse while the existing Bradley terminal will continue to have its own check in area. My head hurts.

And the best part of all? This will not expand the number of gates on property. Thanks to an ill-advised agreement with the surrounding communities, the number of gates is fixed at the airport, so they’ll just close down the remote gates at the far west end of the airport when these new ones open.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention. There’s a separate project that has yet to be funded that will put a people mover around the airport and connect it out to the parking lots and metro rail. I like that idea, but I hate the idea of spending what will likely exceed $10 billion on a project that could be done for far less if we weren’t trying to dazzle the world.

In my opinion, we could ditch the fancy design and put function over form here. Yes, I’d like to see a nice open airport with lots of light, but does it need to have a roof that looks like waves of the ocean? I would say not. I’d much rather have the user fees stay lower so that we can attract more service. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great things happening in this project that should certainly be happening, such as . . .

  • Sterile connectors between Terminal 3, 4, and Bradley will be built so that travelers don’t have to leave security to get between them all. I wish we would see more connectors like that built all around the airport so connections could flow more freely.

  • There will be far better shopping and dining options at Bradley. I realize that’s not hard to do since it’s pretty much devoid of everything behind security now, but this is a big deal in terms of passenger convenience.

  • This project eliminates the need to use the remote gates. Amen.

  • The new concourse will give more space between Bradley and T3 on one side and T4 on the other. That means that planes from each terminal will be able to push back simultaneously and taxi out without having to take turns waiting for the other side to go. This will be a huge productivity gainer for the airport and especially for American and Alaska which sit on the other side of this alleyway.

  • They say they’ll redo the customs and immigration facilities so you no longer have to push your heavy luggage up a ramp after you get through the process. There is nothing like watching someone who is exhausted after 12 hours on a plane have to push their luggage up.

If just those things alone were fixed, you’d see a significant increase in user satisfaction at the airport. I’ll say it again, I think the design looks good, but we don’t need a good-looking design to be a functional airport. The more money that gets spent, the more that has to come out of passenger pockets down the line.

See more pictures from the reception

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23 comments on “LAX Reveals Plans for Nice but Very Expensive Bradley West Terminal Expansion

  1. Call me crazy but I’ve always enjoyed LAX as both a destination and connecting point. It wasn’t “convenient” to change from UA to NZ but I knew better than to schedule a connection with only an hour between flights.

    I don’t mind the ocean wave concept. Look what DEN has. The cost? Well, if it can’t be spent on adding gates it would certainly be better used to improve ONT or BUR, I agree.

    Only thing about “LA-WOW” that’s fatally flawed is that no one talks about or goes to airports as places to hang out anymore. All the goodies are behind “Passengers Only” check-points and most observation platforms have long been shut down. That plus any passenger going to the airport has someplace else they’re trying to get to and I agree with CF…it’s all money needlessly spent under that concept.

    I like form as much as function is my point. Terminal 2 at CDG? Nice. FRA? The ONLY thing fun to watch is the old-school flib-board they very wisely kept for sentimental throw-back value.

  2. How does the Bradley expansion mesh with the LAX Master Plan, which calls for razing Terminals 1, 2, and 3? It looks like at least the north side of Bradley will need to get reconfigured. And the Master Plan calls for a tunnel to the midfield concourse rather than a bridge. So it makes even less sense to spend all this money on Bradley, knowing that major parts of it will have to go in 10 years. Or perhaps the Master Plan is not really meant to be implemented?

  3. Ron – Actually, this does fit with the master plan for the T1/2/3 reconfiguration. The new concourse will stop short of where the existing Bradley terminal goes (except for that little remaining finger to the one gate that will go if the plan is implemented). The new concourse would line up with the new T1/2/3 wide terminal and it would give room for the north runways to be separated.

    As for the tunnel vs. bridge – they’ve decided that the bridge is the better way to go. I’m told that it helps provide people with views as they move between the terminals, but more importantly, it’s cheaper.

  4. Just a bit over the top…
    (rolls eyes)
    I’m sure taxpayers and fliers will be thrilled when they get the bill.

  5. Frederico’s Folly…DIA = “Done In August”…There are a hundred other reasons you missed in criticizing the airport development plan, but in the end – only one thing matters and that is perception. The airport is the first and last thing a visitor sees, or in the case of a connecting passenger, the only thing they see of a city. How many times have you been to a city (the old Detroit terminal, for instance) only to think about what a dump this city must be. They’ve gone a long way in correcting that and the perception of Detroit is better. Reality is another story…) Pena fought and fought to move Denver ahead and the vision Fentress created has changed the image of Denver as a city. The romance with airports as places of grandeur are the same generations before us had with the train station. Look at what Grand Central or the other rail stations did for welcoming people to a city. The emotion of air travel is indeed a staggering expense. But, done well for the circumstances (PDX in general? DIA? A small facility like Traverse City? the food court at SEA?), the experience of passing through or staying a few hours is priceless in terms of emotional bang. Functional emotionless boxy terminals are out there (Alaska at LAX?) and in many cases the community decides that cost aside, we’re still in the market for an emotional experience. You’ll see another $10 or maybe $15 in your ticket…I’ve yet to hear anyone say “OMFG…would you look at the PFC’s they charge and the per passenger cost at airport X?? Never flying there” but maybe I’m just that sheltered. To me, a nice terminal and the emotional experience is still part of the experience.

  6. Bill – Designing grand air terminals just for looks is not something that we should be spending money on today. I’m the first to agree that the experience at Bradley is terrible, and I fully support a project to fix that, but it doesn’t need to be $2 billion. As I mentioned, JetBlue built a very nice terminal at JFK for $800 million. When an airline is in charge of the project, they want to make it as inexpensive as possible but still make it a good travel experience. Airports do not have that same restraint, and so they waste money on fancy designs that don’t significantly enhance the impact on the traveler.

    You may not see it as a passenger, but when airport operating costs go up, airlines cut flights or at least limit expansion in that city because the demand at profit-making price is less, even if it’s just $10 to $15 a ticket (which is a huge amount, by the way).

  7. A respectful rejoinder – Aircraft design serves aerodynamic economics by creating sleek, “jet set” form. Terminal designs from the great Aero Saarinen mirrored this aesthetic at JFK (I believe JetBlue’s new terminal is simply a modernization around the shell of the old TWA terminal?) and at Dulles, the greatest and most simplistic design still. All they ever have to do at Dulles is make the building longer. That said, it is always nice and appreciated, as Bill suggests, to evoke the emotion, romance and long gone glamour of flying if possible. United’s Terminal 1 at ORD is old news but still attractive and functional.

    If the glass waves alone cost $2 billion, I’d agree that it’s an egregious expense. But as far as LAX is concerned, for a non-resident I’ve only ever seen someone pull down their service at that airport simply because they were managing their business badly. Any carrier that wants to be taken seriously at LAX will either suck up the cost or pass it along to the public that still overwhelmingly wants to fly there.

    As for DIA, I don’t know if the operating costs have gone down, one reason Southwest said they could not afford to operate there the first time. They seem to have reversed their stand in that regard, however, by re-entering the Denver market. They may smell blood from Frontier but they also are apparently willing to accept the costs associated with Fredirico’s Folly.

    Question for you, CF…is it possible in your blog to include simple poll questions for users to enjoy? This would be a good example of such a single question poll – form over function. Thanks again for the great column!

  8. Optimist – A couple of points to your thoughtful response. First, JetBlue built a brand new terminal behind the existing Saarinen structure that was built for TWA. That will be connected to the new terminal (if it hasn’t been already), but it’s not an integral part of it. JetBlue built the entire terminal themselves with 26 gates for $800 million. Bradley will have a new concourse (not an entirely new terminal) with 14 gates, some taxiways will have to move around, and a new fire station will be built for $2 billion. You can be sure that the design is an expensive one, as LAWA’s Deputy Executive Director said.

    If you’re talking about intercontinental flights, then yes, a few extra dollars is not going to deter an airline from flying to LA on its own. It will, however, make them reconsider a second flight if demand is questionable. More importantly, these costs will likely be spread around to at least some other airlines in the end. Expensive airports have absolutely deterred airlines from adding service in the domestic market.

    One of the reasons that Southwest said they went back into SFO was because the airport had been able to bring its costs down. I believe that in the last 15 years, costs have come down from $17 or $18 per enplanement to closer to $13. That’s a big difference.

    And yes, I have included polls from time to time. I’m sure I’ll continue to do them.

  9. I am curious as to how and why the north A380 gate was grandfathered. I don’t know the details yet but that is absurd especially for an airport, essentially on a piece of equipment. Would you happen to know?

    Did Mr. Johnson give a breakdown on the cost of relocating the taxi way?

    The bridge at DEN is good in concept but partially poor in functionality. There are two levels in the bridge. The lower level is for passengers who choose to walk from the main terminal to the A concourse. The upper level is for PAX inbound from international flights. They trek from the gates directly across the bridge and go down to the customs area by escalators.

    The problem is that the capacity in the customs area is limited, and when multiple flights arrive, passengers is held up at the bridge level so they don’t have to walk backwards on the escalators, and many get WTF cranky b/c they want to go use the restrooms, which are located in the customs area only.

    Earth removal is always more expensive than to build above ground, but they want to dig a hole for parking, hmm.

  10. Eric – All very good questions. I was not able to get into any further detail at the reception. If I’m able to find answers, I’ll let you know. There was no cost breakdown given – just the ballpark overall figure. Great point about them not being interested in digging for a tunnel but they’ll do it for parking. Maybe the fact that they want to build a terminal on that spot means that the work isn’t as substantial to add underground parking, but they could also be bluffing. There’s still a discussion about having a remote off-airport parking area which is, of course, a terrible idea.

  11. I passed through the Bradley Terminal in December 2008. It is a dump. I was embarrassed that foreign travellers were exposed to this view of America.

    Whoever controls this facility should immediately do two things:

    1. Hire Disney ($1,000 ought to do it because their own executives have to pass through) to show the Bradley folks how to move people.

    2. Fire the beauracrats who presently run the place, they obviously don’t have a clue.


  12. CF, these are big projects that take may years and will last for a very long time and one only has to pass through the midfield additions to Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Airport to understand what the “we can’t afford it now” thinking brings. We can never afford these. We never have this kind of money laying around. At Dulles, Terminals C/D were a “temporary” stopgap which have long outlived their initial purpose and are a horror to use. They are, however, functional and by the standard you are setting, this should be the model. Fortunately the Washington Airport Authority had better sense with Terminal B. It will cost us so much more to rebuild C/D to what they should have been in the first place.

    Perhaps the big mistake was Fentress describing their design in such shallow terms People are appropriately suspicious of architects designing for themselves and not the rest of us. It’s hard to imagine Norman Foster (Beijing, Hong Kong) or Renzo Piano (Osaka) describing their work in such trivial terms. Those are great airports in every way because they did not fall into the trap of thinking there is a difference between beauty and function. But that doesn’t make the LAX expansion bad or make it wrong to bear in mind that these are large public buildings that we will have to live with long after the small-minded bureaucrats have retired.

  13. mbaughman – All very good points, for sure. I suppose I should stop using “functional” as my word or at least clarify what I mean, because in my opinion, the temporary midfield concourse (C/D) at Dulles is hardly functional! Yes, you can get on a plane there, but transportation to the terminal is a mess, there isn’t enough seating, there aren’t enough shops to pass the time, and it’s literally falling apart. If that’s considered functional, then you could probably consider the existing Bradley Terminal concourses functional, and I definitely don’t think that’s the case. I don’t argue that we need to do something about Bradley.

    But I’d be curious to get your thoughts on JetBlue’s new terminal. It appears to be quite functional, and while somewhat spartan, it’s attractive and will probably last long into the future. For JetBlue to be able to knock down most of the old TWA terminal and rebuild a brand new 26 gate terminal from scratch cost a mere $800 million. Meanwhile at LAX, they’re talking about simply knocking down the existing 11 gate concourse and building a 14 gate one to replace it in the first phase. While this will include some changes to the ticketing/baggage areas to fit with the new concourse, that part isn’t a new structure at all. The only other component here is moving an existing taxiway further west to accommodate for gates on both sides of the new concourse. Yet this much smaller project is going to cost $2 billion.

    Airports should always be trying to keep costs low, and in this case, I think they’ve let the design have costs that are running away for the sake of prettiness.

  14. Umm, you’re an idiot. The total value of the construction project is $1.5 billion. My company is insuring it. Where are you getting these ridiculous numbers from?

  15. InsureItGirl wrote:

    Umm, you’re an idiot. The total value of the construction project is $1.5 billion. My company is insuring it. Where are you getting these ridiculous numbers from?

    Name-calling is always a great way to engage in a discussion. For some reason, I’m bothering to respond to you. There is no way this thing will be done for $1.5 billion.

    First, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. There are two phases to this project. The first is for the new gates in the existing terminal. The second is the remote concourse with new ticketing area. The combined projects are expected to be $6 to 7 billion (but I bet it goes even higher).

    In Phase I, which may be what your company is insuring, the costs are expected to be around $1.5 billion, but I’ll be surprised if it comes in that low. They have already awarded $1.26 billion in the form of two contracts, and I’m sure there will be more.

    If you’d like to keep having a discussion about this, I’d suggest that you stop being an ass and act like an adult. I won’t respond to name-calling from you again.

  16. Is the pricetag steep? Yes.

    Will it *significantly* improve the image of LAX? Yes.

    At the time, CPK @ HKG set a world record for construction costs (US $20 bil in 1998). Yet, visit it today, and the airport is phenomenal. Everything — transportation, check in, security, baggage, etc comes together smoothly to make for an excellent end-user experience. Though I’ve flown through HKG too many times to count, I still love going through it. The same can be said about YVR, which added 9 more gates among others to the tune of 1.4 billion.

    Yes, it is possible to design an airport with no architectural value. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it will significantly cut the price. It will also leave the traveler with an experience similar to that of JetBlue’s terminal.

    I went through JetBlue’s terminal in April 09. It wasn’t anything memorable. Yes, it was clean and modern and all, but it wasn’t anything memorable, just another concrete-glass building. I would venture a guess and say that within 10 years, the architectural design will begin showing its age. On the other hand, UA @ ORD, DEN, and HKG have all aged well, and will continue to, dare I say it, delight the traveler who passes through.

    While I lack experience in airport construction, I would also wonder what the actual cost breakdown is, and how much is directly related to actual glass and steel of the building itself. Runways can be surprisingly expensive. Construction costs are also high if one has to “build over” an actively used building.

  17. I guess some one had to always say something. I hope people understand how long it took before they even start building this new airport. the writter came up with an example of a new york 26 gates airport built by one of the airlines with 800 million. for god shake. Have you ever been to new york airport call jfk. for all the beauty of that city some one for once had the audacity to mention new york airport jfk. that is the ugliest airport I have ever seen for a big city is it a mokery regarless of improvement they are trying to make at that airport it look horrible to see . I just stopped by there a week ago I was ashamed to see jfk as new york airport. truly. expenssive or not expensive, pretty or not, people are going to fly to lax to go to los angeles and california thru that airport. and I rather see a beatifull airport than to see a ugly is not like because it is expenssive people will not fly lax. lax has been criticised for too long it is about time to make a splash and I like the idia of this one.

  18. L.A. live in downtown los angeles single handely change the perception of downtown los angeles. meanning beauty and money have an impact in life.I do not see anything wrong in having both beauty and easy airport to move around. yes money will be an impact but this los angeles a world class city . if you had a choice to leave in beverly hills and watts what will you choose? if you can afford it. I am sure some one will afford it.

  19. I’m the other way around: I find international easier than domestic at LAX. Except for when the US Customs folks decide to roster-on four officers for the five flights that are landing within half an hour. That sucks!

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