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LAX, terminally dreadful

April 17, 2006|Chris Ayres | Chris Ayres is a Los Angeles correspondent for the Times of London and the author of "War Reporting for Cowards."

ACCORDING TO the management of Los Angeles International Airport (I imagine William H. Macy in a beige cubicle), there's a simple reason why passengers keep voting it one of the world's worst airline facilities. Yep -- dirty restrooms.

A few more mops on the ground, say the eggheads, and LAX could improve its woeful No. 19 ranking on the J.D. Power and Associates 2004 survey of large global airports (there are 22 on the list, with New York's JFK in last place).

Action, we are informed, is already being taken: 18 restrooms a year will be refurbished. Cracks in the floors will be filled. Walls will be repainted, possibly in cheerful colors. All in all, the plan feels a bit like trying to save General Motors from bankruptcy by changing the logo.

Let's face it: The problem with LAX is not the urinals. The reason passengers complain about LAX is because, when they fly, they get to see other airports. And I'm not just talking about LAX versus Hong Kong (No. 1), or LAX versus Orlando (No. 2, believe it or not). I'm talking about LAX versus airports that were recently owned by Soviet satellites.

Take Prague International. The place looks like a billion dollars. It has Skoda automobiles on pedestals, Bohemia crystal hanging from the ceiling -- even a Hugo Boss store. As for the non-Soviet airports, London Heathrow (No. 18) has a Paul Smith boutique, a Virgin Megastore and a mini-Harrods. In Britain, people tend to blame the over-commercialization of public spaces on the Americans. If only they knew the truth. At LAX, all you can buy is a copy of Newsweek and a lukewarm Whopper.

At this point, I should probably confess: I'm an LAX geek. As a roving news correspondent who also is required to visit family members on the East Coast and in Europe, I often feel as though I spend more time at LAX than I do in my own bed. I was one of the few people reduced to tears by Tom Hanks in "The Terminal."

I have spent years getting to know LAX's every quirk. I own a membership card for the Parking Spot -- having recently ended a long and unhappy relationship with Parking Lot C. I know how to get into the business class line for security at Terminal 4 without having a business class ticket. I'm competitive at the metal detector. Failure to take out my laptop before the TSA agent tells me to take out my laptop can ruin an entire business trip -- it marks me as an LAX amateur to all the other frequent fliers in line.

Sometimes I think we ought to be grateful for the almost monastic lack of choice at LAX. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, I was forced to walk through a store the size of the Beverly Center before getting to my gate. There was a fresh meat counter beyond immigration -- for those brave enough to spend 15 hours on a plane with rib-eye in their carry-on.

The meat, of course, was more for show than anything else. Like the Skodas in Prague or the Harrods at Heathrow, it was a symbol of pride. So where is the pride at LAX? Sure, the $11-billion modernization plan has been delayed by endless debate and local opposition. But does that justify the current underwhelming experience? Will fixing the loos do any good?

Airport shopping malls might be crass, but there's an undeniable element of convenience in having, say, a dedicated drugstore, record shop or designer boutique near your gate. As for restaurants, it's hard to believe that given everything we know about the effects of flying on the human body, the major refreshments offered at LAX are still based around either booze, hot grease or caffeine. While I'm on the subject -- why does Chili's end its breakfast menu at 10 a.m.? Does anyone really want an order of chicken crispers at 10:05 in the morning?

My guess is that the people at LAX are happy to rely on the airport's one God-given advantage: the California weather. After all, I challenge anyone to take a winter flight from Heathrow, JFK or any other airport in a chillier climate and not feel instantly elated during the descent over the Santa Monica Mountains. You also can't fault LAX's presentation -- there's something still unbelievably cool about the extraterrestrial outline of the Theme Building, the giant LAX sign, and those lighted, rainbowcolored cylinders. Perhaps that's what Angelenos should be proud of -- the triumph of visual drama over such drudgery as shopping, eating and restrooms.

Still, some choice would be nice.

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