American Breaks Ground On An Extreme LAX Terminal Makeover

There was a big event in a hidden room in the bowels of Terminal 5 at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) last week.  American Airlines officially “broke ground” on a massive $1.6 billion project to redo both Terminals 4 and 5.  This isn’t going to be a quick project — look for it to be mostly done by the time the Olympics arrive in a decade — but it will make a big difference for travelers once it’s complete.  It shows American’s long-term commitment to Los Angeles, something that I used to question.  I had the chance to interview CEO Doug Parker about that broader question later in the day, but I’m posting that as a podcast tomorrow.  Today, let’s focus on what exactly is happening in this project.

I put American “broke ground” in quotes, because the event was entirely staged for the media.  Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and American CEO Doug Parker — after making speeches — took sledgehammers to a makeshift ticketing desk that was brought down to the arrivals level.  (I’m told Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles swung his sledgehammer especially hard.)  The real work will begin within a couple of months when they actually start to reconfigure the ticket counters that Delta so painstakingly put together before it abandoned ship for Terminal 2 and 3.

The project will effectively create a new headhouse (check-in/baggage/security area) that’s right in between Terminals 4 and 5.

In that photo above, you can see where Terminal 4’s headhouse ends today on the right of the new structure.  This new building will go all the way through to the airside.

It will be a hub of activity.  Travelers using Terminal 4 (entirely used by American today) and Terminal 5 (used by American, Hawaiian, JetBlue and all the ULCCs: Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier, and Sun Country) will be able to enter in one place and get to the ticketing counters for their respective airlines.  There will also be a single security checkpoint for the two terminals.  Travelers needing to go between Terminals 4 and 5 will no longer have to take the underground tunnel.  They will be connected right up front above ground.  The first phase will open in 2022.

In 2024, LAX opens its automated people mover which will have a stop at Terminal 4/5.  The new headhouse will be built with escalators and elevators to get people to the bridge over to the train.   By 2028, the headhouse part of the project should be largely done, just in time for the Olympics.

But this isn’t just about the headhouse.  I can’t quite tell the extent of the work to be done, but American says there will be a “fully upgraded and modernized Terminal 4.”  It sounds like they may finally blow up all the random additions that have been stapled on to the original building over the years.  That may actually create a (*gasp*) functional building.

Thinking about the bigger picture, this will help American further create a fiefdom in the southwest corner of the airport.  In the long run, the airport should be divided up in a few ways.

  • Southwest will continue to run its operation from the nearly-completed renovation in Terminal 1.  It will also eventually build Terminal 0 which should have customs/immigration.
  • Delta will rebuild Terminals 2/3 into the Delta Sky Way.  There will be a connector to the Bradley Terminal where SkyTeam partners can continue to operate on the north end.
  • American will presumably try to make a move to take over Terminals 4 and 5 entirely and have its partners in the southern end of the Bradley Terminal, hopefully ditching the Eagle’s Nest remote gates.  But that can’t happen until other airlines can be moved out of Terminal 5.
  • Alaska will continue to have most of Terminal 6, as long as it wants it.
  • United and its Star Alliance partners will someday build a new Terminal 9 for its needs.  That would free up room in Terminals 7 and 8 which could be used by all the cats and dogs operating in Terminal 5 today.  Move them out and American can take over Terminal 5. (Update: United reached out to me and said that it has no plans to leave T7/8)
  • All the foreign carriers that are unaligned will have room in the Bradley Terminal and in the Midfield Satellite Concourse attached to Bradley.

This will take years and billions upon billions of dollars… yet it still won’t result in a single new runway.  Don’t get me wrong, this work is needed.  (In fact, I’d argue they didn’t go far enough. They should have just razed the terminals and started over.)  But in the long run, we’ll need to see more pavement… or Star Trek beaming technology.

For now, let’s just rejoice in the fact that LAX will become nicer and more rational once this project is done.

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33 Responses to American Breaks Ground On An Extreme LAX Terminal Makeover

  1. Logan says:

    What are the implications of this on PHX?

    • CF says:

      Jonathan – I discussed potential good and bad scenarios for Phoenix on the blog in the last couple weeks. This isn’t a new project here, just the ground-breaking, so nothing has changed.

  2. Gary Leff says:

    The beaming technology could be housed in the Theme Building.

  3. You saw it in the first photo: Cranky is promising us transparent cars by 2022!

  4. Ann Wilkerson says:

    Thanks for defining “headhouse.” It seems airlines are still inventing their own lingo. And speaking of lingo: great metaphor! “Cats and dogs” exactly fits.

    • Greg Mermel says:

      “Headhouse” is not an airline neologism. In a transportation context, the term dates to late 19th century railway construction. The glorious interior spaces that we all think of as New York’s Grand Central Terminal, or for you Angelenos, LA Union Station – are the headhouses for those stations.

  5. A says:

    What LAX needs is to raze everything but the Bradley and build a concourse style airport like ATL. I know that is a dream but what AA and DL and others are doing is just decorating. As you elude, operations aren’t really improved to move more planes.

    • Nathan P says:

      I am surprised that the airport doesn’t build another concourse west of the Bradley terminal. At the expense of some maintenance buildings, you could put in an Atlanta style terminal with gates on both sides.
      Assuming that say United and American moved in, that would leave the south-side legacy terminals available to be demolished and rebuilt with a proper connection to Bradley.

  6. Fake Bob Crandle says:

    Please tell Mr. Parker that in a few years it won’t matter how awesome he makes his new “head house” if he continues to expand the Kettle Class with more rows and pisses off his loyal flyers

  7. MeanMeosh says:

    One single security checkpoint for Terminals 4 and 5? That sounds like it’s going to be fun…

    • Alex Hill says:

      Well, it depends how big the checkpoint is. I assume it will be very big.

      • James S says:

        And I’m sure it’ll be adequately staffed by TSA, right? Thinking of all the other US airports that have built big, sparkling new security checkpoints over the past decade. Dozens of security lanes and only three of them staffed with screeners.

        • Alex Hill says:

          Sure, but that’s not a function of the construction of the checkpoint. There are also lots of US airports with multiple smaller checkpoints where some of the checkpoints are closed at some or all times. No matter what, what matters is a) having enough security lanes (which is obviously possible with one very large checkpoint for two LAX terminals) and b) having enough staffing (which TSA can screw up whether it’s one big checkpoint or more smaller ones). But staffing has little if anything to do with the size of the checkpoint.

  8. Douglas Swalen says:

    No new runways…not in my lifetime probably. And still have to use the tunnel to go between T5 and T6. Razing the terminals makes sense on paper but can you imagine the disruption to air traffic if they actually tried it? Say they razed T4…American couldn’t possibly continue with the same amount of flow through LAX if it had to rely on just its slice of T5 for a few years.

  9. Building something new to improve the future, and they use a word like headhouse. A mid 19th century term that no one has ever heard of. I had to look it up, and think 21st century PR people could have come up with something better to describe it. I wonder what Apple PR would have described it as.

  10. Anon says:

    Why do you think new runways are needed? I always thought LAX was in pretty good shape there with 4 parallel runways with enough separation to land two aircraft simultaneously. (It’s certainly in better shape than SFO to the north, where the 28/10 runways are too close to each other.)

    • CF says:

      Anon – The runways work far better than in SF, but LAX is heading toward 90 million passengers a year and climbing. There will be runway constraints over time as growth continues. This requires long term planning.

      • Frank says:

        I guess I’m not seeing how LAX even has room for another runway on the current plot. Are you suggesting that they acquire land…somewhere? It definitely can’t be south, because there’s a large cliff on that side that naturally precludes any expansion. The north conceivably has room, except LAX signed an agreement not to encroach on that area around Westchester Parkway.

    • The cost of land acquisition alone could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions.

  11. I like your idea of raising LAX and building anew from scratch. The biggest problem I see is that the space between terminals 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are so small that you can only pull in or pull out one plane at a time from those gates. It’s not efficient.

    I’m glad to hear they are getting rid of one of those dreary tunnels between terminals 4 and 5, but it looks like a long walk if you have to go from the end of 5 to the end of 4.

  12. Steve H. says:

    The ‘cats and dogs’ will be relocated to the new Midfield Satellite South concourse to be built/opened after the North area is done in May 2021. Terminal 9 is only going to have like 10 widebody gates, big enough for Star but not UA too. UA is staying on Terminals 7 and 8 for the long haul unless something drastically changes. They just finished a huge renovation of those terminals with a new club and a Polaris lounge that’s opening mid-December. There won’t be any ‘cats and dogs’ spilling over there anytime soon.

    • aaway says:

      Steve,
      Agree with your post. Essentially UA wants what AA and DL got – namely, proximity to alliance partners. UA gets that opportunity here.

      LAWA will have an opportunity to redistribute the demand-driven traffic impacts plaguing World Way as a result of TBIT activity.

      Also, don’t be surprised to find perhaps one or two unaligned domestic carriers operating from MSC North upon its opening. Change orders were approved by LAWA whereby a couple of the yet-to-be-built widebody (Group V) gates will be made narrowbody (Group 3) capable. This means requisite adjustments to jetbridges, fuel pits and necessary striping associated with narrowbody operations.

    • Mark K. says:

      It’s odd that we haven’t heard/seen more updates on the Terminal 7/8 renovation. Would be curious to see what it looks like now.

  13. LRK says:

    Where would they put “Terminal 9”?

  14. aaway says:

    “….I can’t quite tell the extent of the work to be done, but American says there will be a “fully upgraded and modernized Terminal 4.” It sounds like they may finally blow up all the random additions that have been stapled on to the original building over the years.”

    The new lease with LAWA divides the renovations into two components – (1) This initial project combining the headhouse, building the vertical core to link the APM, and constructing two additional gates, among other things. The second component – dependent on a number of thresholds levied by LAWA that AA must meet – includes the razing of T-4.

  15. Justin says:

    What are the chances T9 actually happens? UA has been so wishy-washy with LAX, announcing plans to build up then pulling service left and right, seems more like a pipe dream than a reality.

  16. The rights to Terminal Zero are currently in a 3 way battle between WN,DL and B6.
    Terminal Zero will be eventually be built but I have doubts that WN will gain access to the all 8 gates. I think WN will probably end up with 2 or 3 and the other 5 or 6 going to JetBlue. DL will probably have rights to bring international arrivels into T0 or move a partners operation from T2 to T0.

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