An uncomfortably wide hallway leads passengers from the ultra-premium check-in area toward the concourse in Delta Airlines’ newly renovated Terminal 5 at Los Angeles International Airport. The walls are unadorned, and the space feels eerie and un-luxurious, like you are headed to the operating room. Or, worse, airport security.
Anyone who flies through LAX is probably already prepared for the worst. Consistently rated one of the worst major airports in the United States, LAX has long been known for congestion, shabby facilities, and dullness in all but the largely ornamental Googie-style Theme Building.
Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) Deputy Executive Director Roger Johnson cited the common joke about LAX: “It’s nine unrelated buildings connected by a traffic jam.” The renovation of Terminal 5 is one of the countless elements in an $8 billion massive modernization program intended to remedy this situation.
A west wing of the Tom Bradley International Terminal opened two years ago with a $2 billion, ground-up structure that has soaring ceilings, public artwork, and luxury boutiques that international travelers expect. The completion of Terminal 5’s $229 million upgrade marks a major milestone in the second phase (of three) in the airport’s modernization program. This phase includes upgrades to all central terminals except for Terminal 3 and will culminate in the ground-up construction of the Midfield Satellite Concourse. The design for the MSC was approved July 20.
The modernization plan is taking place under the slogan “LAX is happening,” but it’s not so much a plan as it is a series of projects that happen to be taking place in succession. A complex deal to restructure control of individual terminals—in which LAWA essentially bought out carriers’ long-term leases several years ago—means that carriers can now pursue interior upgrades according to their own schedules. LAWA is contributing significant funding to terminal upgrades, so carriers have incentive to make their own investments.
“Once we broke the dam by starting Bradley West, all of a sudden everybody else started saying, ‘Hey, I want my piece of the pie,’” said Johnson.
Led by Dallas-based Corgan Associates in association with Gensler, design work at Terminal 5—opened in 1962 and originally designed by Pereira & Luckman—focused on the landside experience, the space between the curb and security.
Corgan’s approach favors performance over aesthetics. Terminal 5’s weathered 53-year-old exterior was largely left alone in favor of intensive structural and interior renovations. “The ticket counter is rapidly becoming an artifact of air travel,” said Johnson. Freestanding kiosks and pods replaced a seemingly endless ticketing counter. The design increases the number of check-in stations from 32 to 54 while also creating more elbowroom for passengers and their luggage, all without adding floor space.
“Our goal was to establish a modern, clean, crisp aesthetic that is in keeping with Delta’s brand and also created an environment in which passengers had a clarity about circulation that wasn’t obstructed with a lot of clutter,” said Jeff Mangels, aviation principal at Corgan.
The terminal serves an average of 23,000 passengers per day, about 200 of whom use the premium Delta ONE entrance. Four additional security lanes (including a premium section) mean that passengers will spend less time queuing amid its largely unadorned walls and low ceiling. That improvement, say Delta officials, is where the beauty of the project lies.
A central escalator that used to pass through an atrium to security was eliminated and replaced with several escalators and elevators. The move creates more floor space at the security level so that security queues are less cramped.
According to Mangels, the upgrades will reduce wait times by 60 percent, and the terminal’s International Air Transport Association service rating may go from F to a potential B/A. Corgan was not able to produce studies to support this claim.
The finishes throughout the new landside areas are handsome enough with graphic streaks of Delta’s signature navy blue. And yet, though the terminal was stripped to the girders, the result feels deliberately unspectacular. Much of this work was structural and therefore invisible, such as moving around load-bearing walls and performing seismic upgrades. Longtime Delta flyers excited about a new terminal will be mildly gratified. Anyone new to the terminal would be hard pressed to guess whether it was last renovated in 2015 or 1995.
Bathrooms were enlarged and upgraded, and new concessionaires were added (as they have been throughout the airport). Gates have new jet bridges. The premium Sky Club lounge was upgraded, with features like a central buffet and an odd library nook with tromp l’oeil bookshelves. Otherwise, little else has changed. Gate areas remain cramped, and the concourse’s yellowish floor tiles need a power wash. Amid an expenditure of a quarter-billion dollars, no one scraped the residue of tape off the floor of the security area.
LAWA has design guidelines meant to insure that some elements of terminal interiors, such as signage, are consistent with each other. Otherwise, carriers can make them as flashy, or dull, as they see fit.
“Airlines have a lot of latitude in how they design and construct the interiors of their terminals,” said Johnson. “Every airline has their own brand, so they’re going to want to design their terminals with their color palette, their own ideas for how best to process passengers.”
“Everyone is upping their game all over the industry, all over the world,” said Rajan Goswami, Delta’s West Coast vice president of sales. In that respect, LAX is just trying to keep pace.
In addition to the Terminal 5 renovation, Central Terminal Area itself is getting aesthetic upgrades, with new lighting and canopies paralleling the two-level horseshoe road that connects the terminals. A ground-up satellite terminal will be built in the midfield. Whether these individual choices will collectively elevate the airport’s reputation, though, remains to be seen.