Carpenter Jerry Flores works on the metal frames that will be installed… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
Barring another terrorist attack or recession that disrupts air travel, Los Angeles International Airport — long ranked among the nation's worst aviation hubs — is on a path that could restore its reputation as the West Coast's dominant international gateway.
Modernization projects now underway mark the first major expansion of passenger facilities since the Tom Bradley International Terminal was built for the Summer Olympics 27 years ago.
Since then, LAX has steadily fallen behind the modernization efforts of other big-city airports. Aging terminals and a lack of amenities have undercut passenger satisfaction and the airport's share of overseas travelers, some of whom fly into San Francisco, which opened a stunning international terminal in 2000.
Now airport officials, including those beyond Los Angeles, say LAX's stature is on the rise. At least $4 billion is being spent on additions to the Bradley terminal, improvements to several domestic terminals and upgraded utilities and taxiways to handle the latest generation of super-sized jumbo jets.
"We want to do in three years what other airports have done in seven or eight," said Los Angeles airport chief Gina Marie Lindsey, who was hired four years ago to get languishing modernization efforts moving.
John L. Martin, the veteran airport director hailed for remodeling San Francisco's airport, says that "any competitive advantage we had in terms of facilities on the international side will be going away" with the Bradley West project, now being built. It is to house a grand hall filled with upscale restaurants, posh lounges and luxury boutiques.
The addition's massive steel skeleton is visible and will include new concourses, gates, 1 million additional square feet of floor space and an expanded customs area. It will eliminate the hassle that international travelers encounter when flights stop short of the Bradley terminal and passengers are bused to the immigration processing area.
Other pending projects include a giant passenger processing center and a new concourse west of the Bradley terminal that would add more gates. It would be linked to the main terminal area by a steel-and-glass sky bridge, and an elevated tram would whisk passengers to other remodeled terminals. A new station would link the entire airport to the growing regional rail network.
Lindsey acknowledged that the ambitious modernization schedule will rely on meeting upbeat passenger projections and avoiding another economic downturn, a terrorist attack on the nation or hikes in fuel costs and ticket prices.
"The other projects will depend on how much the airport grows," she said, "and how much we can pay down our debt."
Half a century ago, LAX was conceived as a futuristic, cutting-edge reflection of the jet age, a vision still projected at the airport by the historic Theme Building, which looks like a flying saucer suspended on curved concrete legs.
For decades, the airport that ushered in its first jetliner in 1959 prided itself on operating a no-frills facility that stressed low costs for airlines and the efficient movement of passengers.
In the terminals, travelers could buy little more than the basics: a newspaper, a cup of coffee, cafeteria fare and a preflight libation. The mantra was: "We are an airport, not a shopping mall."
The utilitarian philosophy served the airport well. Attracted by low costs and the emergence of Los Angeles as a huge market for air travel, foreign and domestic carriers steadily added service, fueling the region's economy.
But by the 1990s, the terminals were dated and falling into disrepair. Modernization schemes were proposed by Mayors Richard Riordan and James K. Hahn to greatly expand the airport's footprint and add new terminals.
Both plans met stiff opposition from residents and neighboring cities worried about traffic congestion, noise, pollution and the likelihood that homes and businesses would be demolished to make way for improvements.
As politicians and airport neighbors fought over how best to revitalize LAX, the terminals deteriorated further. Water mains broke, escalators failed, concrete fell from the legs of the Theme Building and passenger areas grew more crowded.
Officials realized too that the old gates could not accommodate the latest wide-bodied aircraft, including the giant Airbus A380 now in service.
Research showed that the worsening conditions contributed to passenger declines even before air travel was slammed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. LAX lost about 12% of the airline seats on its weekly international departures from 2000 to 2006, while many other U.S. gateways posted gains.
The stakes were particularly high for the local economy. A 2006 study found that a single international flight traveling roundtrip daily from LAX generated $623 million a year in business activity for the region and supported 3,120 jobs.