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United Airlines Expansion Nears Completion at LAX

Airports: In keeping with its service-boosting campaign, the carrier is working to relieve crowding at terminals and reduce tardy takeoffs.

May 16, 1999|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

It's been a long, frequently uncomfortable wait out there at LAX. But if you use the United Airlines terminals there--and about 40,000 people do every day--happier airport experiences seem to be at hand.

In the next few weeks, the most crucial parts of United's massive and much-needed terminal renovation and expansion project will be completed at last.

United carries more passengers into and out of the airport than any other airline--about one in every four of all LAX passengers--and every day, more than 175 United jets fill with passengers, taxi down runways and roar out of Los Angeles. (Thirty-seven fly daily to San Francisco alone.)

But before any of those travelers leave the ground, they have to navigate Terminals 6, 7 and 8. Terminal 8 especially has been chronically overcrowded for years, with the circumstances worsening as United has increased its shuttle flights to compete with Southwest Airlines in the West.

Before the current upgrade, the often dark and dingy area's last major renovation came in 1979. Even Pete McDonald, United's managing director for Southern California, has acknowledged that "tight capacity and lack of customer-friendly features" were sore points.

Since late 1997, the situation has been complicated further by the boards and scaffolding that come with major renovation. But now, after five years and an estimated $260 million, comes the payoff.

Among the changes:

* In Terminal 8, where travelers on United's short-haul shuttle flights congregate, the carrier says it has spent more than $30 million. A reconfiguration has created 43% more floor space and about 400 new seats in the terminal (roughly a 25% increase in capacity) and added a ninth gate. A "stand-by center" is to accommodate passengers dealing with delays, cancellations and other snags, and officials say a new baggage-handling facility beneath the terminal is delivering luggage with greater speed and accuracy. In April, flight information displays were moved to more accessible locations, and a new sound system was adopted in an effort to clarify acoustics. The number of pay phones has been boosted by about 5%, and might grow another 5% by early 2000.

* In Terminal 7, the airline has brought in new carpets and terrazzo floors (the target for completion is this week), new paint and furniture, and United has relocated the duty-free shop to clear a central pathway through the terminal. A Wolfgang Puck pizza restaurant and La Salsa Mexican restaurant opened more than a year ago in the terminal, and a new bar, managed by Host Marriott, opened April 25. In addition, a remodeled Red Carpet Club is to open June 1, with a remodeled International First Class Lounge to follow a month later.

* Terminal 6 is gaining a Red Carpet Club, to be completed in early 2000, and a new International First Class Lounge in late 2000.

Another key change came in October, when United relocated security checkpoints serving Terminals 6, 7 and 8 and increased the number of X-ray machines for carry-ons from eight to 10. The happy result: Fliers moving among Terminals 6, 7 and 8 will no longer have to clear security each time they move from one terminal to another.

Outside the terminals, officials are aiming for a June 1 opening of a new dual taxi alley, which for the first time allows two 737s at a time to taxi between terminals 7 and 8. Schedulers are counting on that move to reduce tardy departures, United spokesman Matthew Triaca said.

Some other improvements, such as a facility for processing international travelers in Terminal 6, have been complete since July 1996. Yet more measures, such as improved cargo facilities, won't be done until 2000. But most of the changes that affect passengers directly are just winding up now.

These upgrades are part of United's designation of LAX as one of its five "hubs" (along with Chicago, Denver, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport).

Since introducing its United Shuttle service, United has grown enormously, not only in Los Angeles flights but also in San Francisco: The carrier has expanded from 11.4 million California passengers boarded in 1996 to 26.2 million last year.

More than 60% of the airline's worldwide revenue, United officials note, now comes from West Coast passengers.

The improvements also fit into a service-boosting campaign that the airline undertook two years ago under the slogan "United Rising."

In that campaign, the airline took a daring step and acknowledged dissatisfaction among many airline customers, releasing an industry-wide survey of frequent fliers in which three of every four travelers polled said they found seats crowded and uncomfortable. Half said they didn't think airlines did a very good job of handling luggage, and almost as many said they don't think airlines give honest information about delays. United declared its dedication to doing better.

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