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A movie star's idea for an LAX fix

June 11, 2012|By Patt Morrison
  • Work is done at the north concourse of the Tom Bradley Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. The Bradley terminal gets about $1.5 billion of the airport's $4.1-billion overhaul.
Work is done at the north concourse of the Tom Bradley Terminal at Los Angeles… (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles…)

This is a corrected version of the original post; see the note below.

It’s true, they aren’t calling it "air-mageddon," but the slog through Los Angeles International Airport is going to get a little sloggier before it gets more streamlined.

Work is already chugging along on a $4.1-billion upgrade that is named LAneXt, and even though it doesn’t come trippingly off the tongue, someone thought it was clever enough to deserve trademark protection. How do you pronounce it? Lane X T? L Anex T? I hope it’s L.A. Next, with the LAX in notably capital letters. Los Angeles World Airports has a whole site devoted to the project and its updates.

I am a cheerleader for better infrastructure, and all for bumping up LAX’s ranking as one whose services airport travelers’ reviews often rate poorly.

The airport is the first California spot many visitors see, and the last place they’ll remember about their travels here. Angelenos I know routinely apologize to visitors for LAX the way the Brits apologize for their weather.

It is civically embarrassing when airports in places as small as Sacramento are newer, cleaner, faster and easier to navigate through, and with amenities to reduce the general unpleasantness of travel, like unlimited free Wi-Fi (LAX launches limited free Wi-Fi soon), plenty of working electrical outlets, restaurants and bars and shops outside of security checkpoints for people waiting for arriving passengers or for passengers not yet ready to plunge into the TSA maelstrom.

And LAX’s most striking feature seems to be wasted: Smack in the middle of the airport’s sensibly conceived but overtaxed two-level horseshoe of terminals sits the Encounter theme restaurant, gorgeous and iconic but, tauntingly, almost inaccessible to the ordinary traveler on a normal itinerary.

Here’s one more big flaw that needs to be remedied, and it was pointed out to me by my friend the glamorous and supremely funny actress -- and one whiz of a poker player -- Angie Dickinson.

Here’s the setup. There are nine terminals at LAX, but only eight of them are numbered. The biggest, the one that sits at the top of the horseshoe, between terminals 3 and 4, only has a name, the Tom Bradley terminal, where dozens of international airlines arrive and take off from every day.

Bradley was the Los Angeles mayor who traveled the world -- perhaps even more than his predecessor, nicknamed "Travelin’ Sam" Yorty. Bradley brought the world to Los Angeles with the 1984 Summer Olympics. By all means, he deserves his name up in lights somewhere, and it makes sense to make that somewhere the airport.

But look at it from the traveler’s point of view. You’re driving into the airport horseshoe, peering at the signs … terminal 3, terminal 4, terminal 5 … whoops, what’s that building between 4 and 5? Is it like the appearing/disappearing house front in ‘’Harry Potter’’? Do Angelenos not use the base-10 system?

A number, Angie made the case to me, is far, far easier to navigate by than a name.

A number is universally understood. For visitors from nations with other alphabets, other language systems, the person "Tom Bradley" probably means nothing, and signs with the name "Tom Bradley" may just look like gibberish. But a number, everyone can understand.

I’ve lived here so long -- since before Bradley’s triumphant ’84 Olympics -- that I hadn’t even given it much thought until Angie mentioned it. She’s been trying for ages -- calling the mayor, council members, a member of Congress -- to get someone to understand how confusing and unhelpful the present name-only system is.

"It has bugged me for years and years,’’ she said. "When is the Tom Bradley Terminal going to get a number?"

She’s right. And not acknowledging that foreign travelers have different needs and concerns from domestic ones already bit LAX on its rear end, more than 20 years ago. 

Until 1990, exhausted foreign passengers straggling off 12- and 16-hour international flights deplaned to find that, if they wanted to load their bags off the luggage carousels and onto carts to make their way through customs -- and don’t we all? -- they had to already have in hand one dollar in U.S. money to rent one, even though the currency exchange was on the far side of customs. Even if they had the foresight to change money already, most people wind up with denominations like twenties.

It was hostile, and shamefully money-grubbing. In other major U.S. airports, foreign travelers found free luggage carts. Here, they might have hung up signs, "Welcome to Los Angeles. Please have correct change available in U.S. dollars or you’ll have to drag your 50 pounds of luggage yourself."

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