If you’ve flown through LAX on Southwest in the last couple of years, you know what a nightmare it’s been. There’s a ton of construction which has snarled the roadway, closed many concessions, and taken away precious seating space. There is now finally some good news. Southwest took me behind the walls to see the new ticketing area which opens on Thursday morning. While we were there, I was given access all around the rest of the project so I could get a feel for what it’s actually going to look like when it’s completely done on Memorial Day, 2018. The airline is doing some great things with the limited space it has available. It’s just a shame the end result will have fewer gates than what the terminal had before.
Terminal 1 was opened just in time for the 1984 Olympics, and it is most certainly showing its age. The terminal operated at such high capacity for the last few years that it seemed like there would never be a way to do a real renovation without serious disruption. Then US Airways moved out. Once US Airways was gone, Southwest could run its schedule and shift around the open gates as needed to phase the project. The renovation was on.
Here’s what the building looked like before the renovation.
For those who aren’t familiar, the building is set up to be symmetrical. On each side, there are baggage claim areas on the first floor and ticketing areas on the second. Then in the center, there are stairs/escalators leading up to the third floor where security is located. Over the years, they’ve knocked out walls and old retail stores to expand the checkpoint, but it’s pretty tight. Then once through security, the gates lie beyond.
With that background, Southwest went to work. Once it’s done, it’ll look something like this.
The ticket counters will move entirely to the west side of the building (where the old US Airways ticket counters were). That has been under construction for some time, and it opens Thursday morning. Here’s what it’s going to look like.
If it looks more spacious, it is. They pushed back the old wall behind the ticket counter and removed all the offices that were behind there. Those offices have been relocated up to the mezzanine above. There were some offices up there before, but it’s also the space where the old US Airways Club used to be. That means the ticket counter area now looks huge.
The part closest to me in that photo is meant mostly for bag drops. Those blue glowing things are all kiosks where people can check in and print their own bag tags. Then they’ll proceed to the units against the back wall where an agent will scan the tags and put the bags on the belt. They did some design work to figure out how to optimally space the kiosks and this is way more spacious. Why? They put in the kiosks they think they’ll need, but they’ve also installed wiring and infrastructure to increase the number of kiosks by 50 percent or more when needed.
At the far end will be a more traditional self service line. And beyond that? The previous park area that was uncovered between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 will now have a “pavilion” covering the space right next to the terminal. All skycaps (10 positions) will be put in that pavilion and there will be a door directly into the ticketing area. This means the curbside will be uncluttered with skycaps. Further, they’ve spread out the doors into the terminal. This means traffic can spread out further. Even better, it means those who need to go to the ticket counter won’t choke up the traffic at the beginning of the terminal.
On the arrivals level below the new ticket counter is where baggage claim will be. The first new carousel opened last week and the next one will open next week. Here’s the one that has yet to open.
The entire airline will need only two carousels, as it has today. But these carousels are, as you can see, much bigger. The claim area will have concessions (better than the kiosk vendors they have today), and most importantly according to Don Ostler, the Sr Project Manager, the bathrooms will be serious upgrades. He said when this project started, he remembered going to Dodger Stadium after renovations were done, and people talked about the bathrooms first. Do those right, and that’s a big victory. So, all throughout the terminal, bathrooms will have blue walls to make them easy to spot. And there will be a lot of capacity. In fact, I was encouraged to go into the not-yet-opened women’s room in the baggage claim area to show off the number of stalls. So, ladies, here you go.
All of this is what’s happening in the very near term, but this is only a small piece of the project. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the current Southwest ticket counter and baggage claim on the east side of the terminal. That’s because those are going away and turning into the brand new security area.
The central escalators leading up to the security area today will be gone. Bathrooms will go there instead, and then upstairs they’ll redevelop that space. (I’ll talk about that a bit later.)
But the current ticket counter will be the new security area. (Just look how terrible the current setup looks compared to the new one.)
The current baggage claim is where they’ll install the in-line baggage screening system so people no longer have to lug their bags over to the scanners.
This means they had to clear out all the offices behind the ticket counter (again moved to the mezzanine upstairs). But that still wasn’t enough. So as you can see in my drawing, they’re building that red space to hold everything they need.
When you get through security, you’ll see this in a slightly more finished state. It opens in May 2017.
On the left, those will be big glass elevators to go upstairs to the concourse level. On the right are stairs and escalators. It’ll be a grand entrance compared to what we see today. And once at the top, they made sure to put in large glass windows to greet everyone. Apparently there was psychology behind this decision. By letting people see how close airplanes are and that the concourse isn’t very long, it reduces stress. This is the view they’ll have.
This view can actually be had today, because it’s already in use. The old gate 1, now gate 9, reopened recently, and this corridor is the way to get there now. In the future when the new checkpoint opens, people can turn left to go to gates 11-18 or right to go to gate 9. They recently renumbered the gates in Terminal 1 to match the way gates are numbered in every terminal, a two digit number beginning with the number of the terminal.
I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why this gate was numbered 9, but I finally found out. The assumption is that if Terminal 0 is ever built on the current site of the Park ‘n Fly parking lot, then gate 9 would actually be part of that terminal. And the two terminals would naturally be connected. This is all just a pipe dream right now, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Southwest wants it bad. This is particularly obvious since Delta’s plans to take over Terminals 2 and 3 are in the works. Southwest is relying on Terminal 2 for its international flying (Liberia, CR starts soon with more to follow). Terminal 0 is going to be needed in the long run. (As an aside, I couldn’t get them to share with me how they’re going to handle the Terminal 2 operation in the near term – whether they’ll bus, have multiple ticket counters, etc.)
Anyway, back to Terminal 1.
The old dingy concourse is finally being opened up. Gates 11A and B (formerly 3A and B) recently reopened on the east side and gate 12A (formerly 4A) is open on the left. Gate 12B (formerly 4B) is still being worked on, but next to it is the first of the big new concessions, Rock ‘n Brews. It’s very much open to the rest of the concourse to make it easy for people to keep an eye on things while they eat. After that, there are a few shops on either side where the Mexican restaurant and McDonald’s used to be before. Beyond there, things are going to get a huge makeover.
The one awkwardly-placed set of bathrooms at the far end will be gone, replaced by more capacity on both sides. Most importantly, the concourse itself at this point is going to get wide. As you can see in my drawing, those red flanks will add 35 feet to the width of the concourse on both sides. Right now the east side is all closed up as they work on the extension. Here it is so far.
The gates on the east side will progressively open up by the end of this year. Then the other side will start. The very end of the project will be back toward the beginning of the concourse. The food court that’s there today will be knocked down and completely rebuilt. It’s going to open up with panoramic windows looking out on the tarmac, unlike today where it’s entirely closed in.
The escalators and stairs that go down for arriving passengers today will remain exactly where they are. But with the entire security area gone, they can make big changes there. The escalators coming up from the ticketing level will be closed off and a big glass window will go up. They’ll take advantage of the skylights there and put in a wine bar with seating along that window.
When this project is done in May 2018, the old gate 2 (now gate 10) will finally be shut down. And this is the saddest thing about this whole project. While it’s a huge improvement in experience, it’s not an expansion. In fact, with 13 gates, the terminal will have 2 fewer than it has today. Considering that today Southwest schedules 125 daily flights on only 10 gates (for an incredible 12.5 flights per gate per day) thanks to the phasing of this project, that means the airline will still have room to grow a little. But until Terminal 0 is built, this won’t be a real growth project. It’s just going to make the experience a whole lot better. That in itself is long overdue.