The Agony of LAX (and What's Being Done About It)

Illustration By Tom Chitty

America's second-busiest airport ranks 91st in the world as it fails on all fronts, from sad food to worst-in-class gate waits, while the big airlines and the city strive (slowly) to make flying great again.

Since 2000, an art installation called the Gateway Pylon Project, featuring an array of 100-foot-tall translucent glass towers, has presided over the entrance to LAX. The columns are synchronized to change colors in complex 15-minute sequences experienced most fittingly at dusk while stuck in a logjam near the intersection of Century and Sepulveda boulevards. It's the light show that presages the shitshow ahead.

"LAX just sucks," says Paul Guyot, an executive producer on TNT's The Librarians and the upcoming Nat Geo series The Black 22s. "The traffic is horrendous. I purposely schedule flights to avoid the worst traffic, but it still can take 20 minutes to cover the last few miles. After you get there, even if you fly first class and get in one of those 'fancy people' lines, you still have to do the Bataan Death March to get through security. Then the food choices are awful: a stupid food truck in one terminal, some faux French bakeries and crappy fast food masqueraded as 'gourmet' burgers. The whole thing is so L.A. — pretending to be better than it actually is."

That's in line with the opinions of 13.5 million air travelers surveyed in an annual ranking of the world's top 100 airports released by researcher Skytrax. In the 2016 report, LAX rose seven spots to No. 91, behind such esteemed hubs as Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and Detroit Metro. (Singapore's Changi earned top honors.) Participants expressed a litany of complaints about a lack of terminal seating, poor food choices, terminal cleanliness, staff friendliness and immigration lines — in short, nearly everything.

In the same vein, J.D. Power recently released the findings of its 10th annual study of North American airport satisfaction, and after asking travelers to rank terminal facilities at the 31 largest U.S. airports, LAX — the nation's second-busiest airport — finished 29th, edging out LaGuardia and Newark in the basement. Not to be outdone by market researchers, the Los Angeles City Controller's office released a 240-page critique of LAX in February that meticulously itemizes the airport's complicated problems. (Commenting on the arrivals area, the report calls the lower level "dark, noisy, impersonal, congested and unclear regarding which direction to walk.") While other U.S. airports are unveiling spa services, free lactation pods, fenced-in dog parks, rentable private daybeds, farm-to-table dining, luxury shopping, elaborate play zones for kids, live music, art-gallery spaces, sophisticated intra-terminal people-movers and even complimentary yoga studios, travelers at LAX can't count on finding a seat at their gate or someplace to plug in a phone or a Starbucks in every terminal.

Fortunately there is hope in the not-too-distant future. Several big construction projects are underway to bring the airport, which is landlocked, historically underfunded and uses terminals built during the 1960s, into the 21st century: improved terminals (the ongoing $14 billion modernization plan is tackling Terminals 1, 7 and 8), a new Metro station far closer than the Green Line's Aviation/LAX stop, a centralized rental-car facility, a new station to siphon shuttle buses away from the terminals — all connected by a sophisticated tram system. (The airlines have plans, too, including American's Flagship Lounge for business and first-class passengers, set to open in 2017, and a $1.9 billion project to move Delta into radically modernized Terminals 2 and 3 that recently was approved by airport officials.) In a decade or so, we'll be golden. But until then, prepare to suffer.


A sea of headlights is an everyday sight on Sepulveda. 

HORRIBLE TRAFFIC

The problems begin on the approach to the airport — typically in a car or shuttle bus, but first-class travelers in limos or UberLux cannot bypass the logjam. ("I get stuck in traffic at LAX all the time," says Jason Priestley. "I seriously wish I could get in and out of there by helicopter.") LAX served nearly 75 million passengers in 2015, and the airport is struggling to handle the volume. LAX officials say they are dealing with factors beyond their control: lower airfares spurred by declining fuel prices, larger planes, more flights — and, of course, a rising tide of people from around the world who want to visit L.A. (and then fly home). An average of more than 75,000 vehicles a day entered the central terminal area in 2015, a jump of 10,000 compared with only two years earlier.

"We don't have the luxury to close the airport or phase in improvements over decades — we have to deliver the future LAX while operating 24/7," says Charles Pannunzio, a spokesperson for Los Angeles World Airports, the city department that manages LAX. "Over the next few years, passengers will see a lot of traffic — but they'll see progress, too."

Although Pannunzio notes that every effort is made to staff up construction projects during off-peak hours, the road to progress likely will involve years of misery that cannot be circumvented by Waze — nor is the 30-minute ordeal that is the simple act of hailing an Uber ride avoidable now that the inner pickup lane at Terminal 1 is shut down around the clock.


Customs lines top 40 minutes on bad days.

LONG LINES, SLOW DOWNLOADS

First-class passengers and A-listers can circumvent some of the worst if they qualify for American's Flagship program or Delta One — services that offer private entrances, check-in, food services, elevators and expedited security to VIPs — but everyone else faces lines and more lines. According to the TSA, security lines at LAX are third-worst in the nation, with an average wait of 16 minutes, and a private-sector analysis concluded LAX has the fourth-worst customs wait time, topping 20 minutes.

If you think that's slow, try downloading a show before boarding a flight without Wi-Fi. Market researcher RootMetrics published a comprehensive report of mobile-network performance at the 50 largest U.S. airports, and LAX ranked 48th (ahead of only San Diego and Philadelphia). After testing all four major carriers at LAX, the fastest download of a 45-minute HD TV episode, smack in the travel hub of Hollywood, took 30 minutes (on Verizon); by contrast, the same show was downloaded at Atlanta Hartsfield in less than two minutes.

But there's a medium-bright spot at LAX: a 77 percent on-time arrival rate — merely unremarkable among big U.S. airports. Of course, there's a catch: Frequent fliers have noted the psych-out of landing on schedule or a little early, only to hear that the taxi process will be lengthy or the gate isn't ready. A MileCards.com study found that LAX's runway taxi times — nearly 11 minutes on average — are worst in the nation. With multiple runways (some far from the terminals), high flight volumes with a limited number of gates and immense Airbus A380 and Boeing 747 jets paralyzing taxiways, you often land "on time" and still get to the baggage carousel late.

TERRIBLE FOOD

With the closure of the Jetsons-era Theme Building, the only presecurity restaurant at LAX is a pizza place in the Tom Bradley International Terminal. And while the TBIT is full of fine L.A.-specific choices, once you penetrate TSA, the other terminals charitably can be labeled hit-or-miss. Just ask fliers on JetBlue and Virgin America who use Terminal 3, where the only food options are Starbucks, Burger King, a La Brea Bakery kiosk with shrink-wrapped sandwiches and a Gladstone's 4 Fish pub. Compared with options available to domestic travelers at SFO (Lark Creek Grill), JFK (La Vie and Piquillo), Newark (Cambodian sandwiches at Vo Banh Mi) and Boston Logan (Legal's Test Kitchen and Todd English's Bonfire), the choices in most LAX terminals resemble the food court at a Torrance shopping mall. "I spend more of my life than I'd prefer to admit at LAX, and the food situation is a catastrophe," says interior decorator Jeremiah Brent (Hollywood clients include Rachel Zoe), who has a new show on TLC with husband Nate Berkus. "I'd kill for a nice, fresh salad and a great coffee before I get on the plane."

Actress Betsy Brandt has more realistic wishes: "Hopefully they improve the airport bars, even if they can't fix the traffic. I like to have a drink before I fly."

***

5 LAX HACKS
Know your security-line wait before you arrive and other inside secrets

1. DO NEXT-LEVEL MAPPING
Using Waze or Google Maps to outsmart airport traffic is essential, but they can’t predict the odd timing of the myriad con- struction projects throughout LAX. To do that, peek at the real-time traffic map at LAXIsHappening.com.

2. FLIP THE SCRIPT
A trick favored by Uber drivers: LAX traffic generally is most insane on the upper level (departures) early in the day and on the lower level (arrivals) in the late after- noon and evening. It could save 15 minutes or more to get dropped off or picked up on the opposite level — all terminals have curbside escalators or inside elevators for those laden with bags. Bonus tip: Traffic tends to be lightest in the early morning and early afternoon.

3. UBER SMARTER
If one level is far less congested than the other, arriving passengers can select a driving service to take advantage of the imbal- ance. UberX and XL must pick up on the upper level, while UberBlack, SUV and Lux use the lower level.

4. IF POSSIBLE, TIME YOUR DEPARTURES
TSA lines aren’t as unpredict- able as you might think. Look up real-time waits at https://apps.tsa.dhs.gov/ mytsa/wait_times_home. aspx (checked for 5 p.m. on a Friday, waits ranged from zero for a TSA Precheck passenger in Terminal 7 to 30 minutes for Terminal 4). Search average wait times for any terminal, day and time at http://airports-airlines.com/ security-wait-times-LAX. html. Bonus tip: if Precheck and first-class lines are the same length, the waits for Precheck — where belts and shoes stay on — usually will be shorter.

5. PLAN THE WALK BETWEEN TERMINALS
Unlike many modern big airports — such as Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth — that have speedy people-movers to whisk trav- elers from one terminal to another, LAX is a pedestrian affair. But in many cases, passengers with connec- tions unnecessarily pass through security and walk the lower-level sidewalks. With the completion of an upper-level connector between Terminal 4 and the TBIT, travelers now can walk from Terminal 8 to the inter- national terminal without dealing with security. It’s hardly elegant — some of the walkways are below- ground tunnels, others are elevated connectors — but it’s a way to avoid an unneces- sary TSA headache. A map of the system can be viewed at http://www.laxishappening .com/assets/pdf/LAX-CTA- South-Tunnel-Map.pdf

This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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