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.
— Brett Snyder (@crankyflier) May 13, 2017
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.