Up All Night With Delta During the Great LAX Terminal Shuffle

Delta, LAX - Los Angeles

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. Bill – That’s right. Not enough counter space there. The ticketing area is still the same as it was when opened in 1984, so while concourses have grown, the space has not for check in.

      1. It’s somewhat astounding that the multibillion TBIT project didn’t include a few more counters.

        So you check in at another terminal then what, load into a bus at an airline gate? What is this, Dulles? Maybe they can sell LAX their remaining moon rovers and just pull them right into the plane at a hard stand location. That’s a lot better than bussing to another terminal like you’re at CVG connecting from mainline DL to a Comair flight. (Yes I know that the Comair terminal, aka the Ode to the 50 Seater Era, is closed. Sue me. Seemed like a good analogy.)

        What a joke for an expensive new facility! Seems like they should have just built a new concourse and added customs to other existing concourse. Or shoehorned in a few new counters somehow.

        1. Bill – Well, not quite. T3 and Bradley are really close, so Avianca/Interjet/Copa have ticket counters at the far west end. You check your bag and then just walk a few feet over to Bradley to clear security and all that. Volaris is different since it’s in T2 so it requires a bus gate. I believe the long term plan for Volaris and others is to build Terminal 1.5 (already approved) between T2 and T1. That will be a satellite check in area where people can be bused to Bradley for flights.
          That seems clunk to me, but there really isn’t another place to build additional ticket counter space at Bradley unless you go into the parking garage area.

          1. Virgin Australia is also doing the T2 checkin/TBIT gate thing. I wonder though if the long term plan is to move VA to T2 gates since they’re a DL partner. Perhaps CBP isn’t able to staff the T2 FIS at the times VA needs (early morning arrivals) so they’re stuck in TBIT?

            1. David M – I think you’re right that it’s a timing issue since T2 isn’t always open when Bradley is. Delta has the joint venture with Virgin Australia, so people are more likely to just go through security, enjoy the big new SkyClub they’re building, and then take a shuttle over. Delta itself will be using a gate in Bradley as well, so this will be relatively common to check in there and shuttle over.

  3. 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.

      1. One man’s experience: Not sure if they pulled down # of flights but they definitely aren’t encouraging connections through there when other options exist. I find that flights to SMF, SJC and OAK (less often SFO) from the East Coast price out cheapest with LAX connections but not this week. I tried multiple times to book my usual Bay Area through LAX route and no dice (either way). I kinda wanted to experience the multiple terminal move and say goodbye to Terminal 5. You could force ticketing but it priced out much higher than through SLC/MSP/DTW. I’m back on that route in two weeks, so I am guessing this was a purposeful move on DL’s part to prevent connections through LAX.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 and are ending up better than they could have expected. The win-win-win nature of this whole move is why it is unlikely that anything like it will be repeated.
    The real question is how soon it will be before Delta takes advantage of its extra gate space with more flights, starts reconfiguring some gates in T2 so that it can handle more flights there, and how successful it is with the soft upgrades to T3 that will have to suffice until a more complete rebuild of the terminal starts.

    1. Tim – The immediate impact is that Delta doesn’t care about adding flights but about lowering gate utilization. It has about 10 a day right now and wants to be in the 7 to 8 range. So I’d expect we’ll see time shifting to create a better gate flow. Between that and the likely need to put gates out of service during the renovations tells me that we won’t see much growth for awhile.

      1. The immediate impact is certainly to reduce gate utilization but let’s be honest that Delta is not spending almost $2 billion to improve its on-time or that of its former southside neighbors. And Delta certainly didn’t spend money to move its competitors to better facilities that were just remodeled around Delta so that Delta could start the process all over in another part of the airport.
        Delta moved purely because it wanted space to grow long-term and the plan it came up with and everyone agreed to (B6 with glee) gives Delta the space to expand in the medium to long-term that no other carrier will have.
        LAWA incentivized Delta’s move by giving it access to TBIT gates and said the more Delta grows its international operation, the more TBIT space Delta can have. DL also has the right to reconfigure the terminals to add more gates – I can’t remember exactly but I think up to 27 combined – so there is a strong incentive to fit in a few more gates where it can likely in T2, esp. since some will be lost once the T3 rebuild begins.
        Delta isn’t talking about growth right now because they have their plate full w/ getting the move done well and getting the terminals and operation across multiple terminals in a stable state.
        However, you will see growth perhaps as soon as this winter but certainly by next summer. The arrival of the C series and the A350 increase Delta’s ability to grow its international and domestic networks including operations at LAX.

          1. Anthony – This is good for JetBlue because it gets out of the armpit that is T3 and gets a nice, newly-renovated T5. It’ll be able to build out a better check in experience with more room. Now it just needs to think about a lounge…

          2. JetBlue moved out of terminal 3 to terminal 5 to larger facilities that had already been refurbished… they got an upgrade in facilities and noted as much. That said, B6 didn’t get anymore space and neither did anyone else – except Delta.
            Delta took on the burden of years more construction and giving up refurbished facilities because they gain immediate space to grow; the amount of capacity and the quality of the facility will improve but Delta is not waiting for any of the major projects – connectors, headhouse, or concourse refurbishment – to be completed before they start growing. It is merely because of the timing of this move that it is too risky to add flights this summer. Delta execs have already talked about the top 20 markets that Delta doesn’t already serve. Delta execs have repeatedly said there will be near term west coast growth even while also saying that Seattle is at capacity. Delta noted their interest in adding Asia flights and that can all happen with the access to TBIT.

            The growth in new markets is necessary in order to pay for the construction, large portions of which are being paid for out of Delta’s own pocket.

            And LAWA gets higher rental fees from the airlines that moved into the refurbished facilities that Delta is moving out of. Projects of this magnitude must have clear economic returns not just in the long-term but also in the near-term.

            This project does it for B6, LAWA, DL and a whole lot of other airlines.

            1. Tim, it’s clear you’ve done some reading, but a lot of your facts are a bit off I’m afraid.

              You said: Large portions of the construction are being paid out of DL’s pocket. Technically yes. BUT, the vast majority will be refunded to DL by LAWA. So your statement isn’t really true.

              You said: SEA is at capacity. False. SEA International Arrivals are temporarily at capacity (but that’s already being worked on). SEA Domestic has room to grow, it is not at capacity.

              You didn’t say (but should have): DL has committed to limit its system-wide seat growth to 1% per year in the near term, and most of that will take the form of new larger aircraft (A321, 739, A350) replacing smaller aircraft. That means there is very little room left for new flights.

              CrankyFlyer is correct. This is all about gate over-crowding in the near term, and growth in the long term. There are no major growth plans at LAX in the near term for DL.

            2. Delta is paying for the cost of the construction out of its own pocket. Yes, they get rent abatements but airlines today rarely pay for construction projects themselves. Delta is doing the same thing at LGA and they are doing it in both cases because they want to move quickly. The pictures that CF posted show how much was done in the relatively short period between when Delta’s terminal move was announced and “moving day”

              Delta is growing an international hub at SEA and their primary interest is international gate capacity and thus there are no international gates. Delta also has very little ability to add even domestic gates right now. if you think there are gates available that Delta could have regardless of what other carriers have access to, call Delta up because they are certainly interested.

              Delta offers over 630,000 seats on 2500 flights/day operated just by Delta and Delta connections. Even one percent growth is the addition of more than 5000 seats/day but Delta specifically said they are growing domestic at a faster rate than international so the growth rate is higher than 1%. Further, Delta hasn’t given a capacity forecast beyond this year. The addition of just 20 new flights/day at LAX over the next year is more than enough to change the competitive environment if the markets added are some of the top 25 markets that Delta doesn’t serve but says they intend to serve. In case anyone is wondering, those markets are ORD, EWR, IAH, and PHL.

              Further, everyone seems to be unable to connect what is happening at LAX with Delta’s hub at NRT that won’t be around for long – and Delta execs have said as much. They don’t intend to shrink their presence in the Pacific but rather grow it by reallocating resources. Delta is still the 2nd largest airline across the Pacific even though the number of seats per departure has shrunk. Delta execs have said there is growth coming to the Pacific and it will be include LAX. Delta fully intended to be operating a replacement flight for LAX-NRT by this time and that additional flight is just one source of airplane that Delta had already allocated.

              LAWA’s own documents show that there are plans to reconfigure terminals 2 and 3 to add gates – this year; Delta doesn’t need to add even more gates if they don’t intend to grow. Delta’s execs aren’t mentioning specific markets they expect to be able to serve because of the new terminal if they don’t intend to start them for years.

              I get that there are people who aren’t excited about seeing Delta grow at LAX because of the huge competitive implications involved. Delta is spending $2 billion because it saw a competitive window to grow and they took it.

              If you doubt what Delta will do in Los Angeles, you would do well to look at New York City 10 years ago. Twelve years ago when Delta committed to growing NYC (JFK,LGA,EWR combined), Delta was the 3rd largest airline. Today it is the largest in terms of seats offered and share of the local market. You can look at capacity over the entire period and Delta’s growth was consistent and steady, year after year. The same thing will happen in Los Angeles in both domestic and international markets.

  6. 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!

    1. 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.

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

        1. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. Jimmy – As far as I know, the shuttles will only go between 2/3/Bradley. So you could in theory walk from T6 to Bradley and then take a shuttle from there.

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

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

      1. 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.

  9. 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 more space for other carriers, which again would also benefit AA in T5.

    Combine that with extra gates for WN in a T0 concourse and LAX might finally have enough room. 10 years from now.

    1. Mike – United is already out of T6. It gave those gates up a couple years ago. But yes, you can see a world where LAX is split into quadrants.
      northeast is Southwest. northwest is Delta/Skyteam, southwest is American/oneworld, and southeast is United/Star. Of course, that leaves Alaska alone in the south with the others scattered as needed.

    2. 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 give up the Eagle’s Nest.
      UA’s plan for T9 requires moving hangars and building what is likely a very costly bridge.
      A T0 for WN is probably the least challenging logistically….

      but LAWA also wants to have space for international carrier growth and there isn’t much capacity to do so if MSC and TBIT gates are given to domestic carriers.

      Finally, LAX’ on-time performance has plunged with runway and taxiway construction which gives some idea of how much additional gate capacity can be added without permanently destroying the ability of the airport to ever operate on-time.

      The DOT is very reluctant to add slot controls to any new airports because it effectively prevents any new competitive growth and protects the carriers that already are at that airport. It is doubtful that JFK and LGA can ever be free of slot controls and none of the large coastal airports will ever build another runway. Based on on-time performance SFO should have slot controls but they will keep building gates which means on bad weather days, there will be more and more passengers that are inconvenienced. Given that LAX like JFK and SFO have high percentages of widebody aircraft, addition of each new gate takes disproportionately more runway capacity than at other airports.

      The US is one of the few countries in the world that will not impose slot controls to prevent overcrowding and delays which is a major factor in the increased hostility of passengers.

      I’m not sure how far LAX will go in trying to add gate capacity but the additional capacity of all of the proposals that are being discussed.

      As with so many things in California, the resistance to expanding infrastructure will lead to even higher prices and that will include air fares. The airlines that have gate space at LAX and in California as a whole are likely assured of decent profits but there will come a point where the “no vacancy” sign will have to be displayed – and that point in time might come a lot sooner than some people might imagine.

    3. 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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