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.