LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Airport is seeking to solidify its position as the leading U.S. gateway to Asia and to increase its standing globally.
Mark Thorpe, director of air service development for Los Angeles World Airports (the government authority that operates LAX and three other airports in Southern California), said LAX was poised to surpass Miami this year to become the second-busiest U.S. airport in terms of international passengers, trailing only New York's Kennedy.
Already, he said, LAX is No. 1 among U.S. airports in terms of Asian passengers, No. 2 with respect to Latin America, No. 2 with Canada and, perhaps surprisingly given the distance, No. 6 in European passengers.
But the airport isn't resting on its statistics: It's undertaking a major renovation of its main international terminal, adding several new carriers and embarking on a multiyear series of upgrades to accommodate the mammoth Airbus A380 and the long-haul version of Boeing's new 787.
With a $723 million renovation of the airport's Tom Bradley International Terminal well under way, LAX officials this month showed off construction progress in the terminal's arrival, ticketing and gate areas as well as recently remodeled VIP lounges.
Improvements to LAX's international facilities are well timed, given that the airport is seeing healthy growth in international passengers (up 4% so far this year, vs. a decline of nearly 3% in domestic passengers), even as rival San Francisco Airport continues to leverage its own strength in Asia.
New international service to the airport, both from airlines new to LAX and from existing carriers, reflects L.A.'s traditional strengths in Asia and Australia as well as increased linkages to Europe and the Middle East.
The international terminal renovation, described by spokesman Tom Winfrey as "currently the largest construction project taking place in the city of Los Angeles," is the first visible component of a massive, multiyear program to support continuing expansion of LAX's international service.
Making room for A380s, 787s
A key improvement of Bradley Terminal involves configuring its twin concourses to accommodate two A380 gates. Similarly, luggage handling in the terminal is being upgraded with supersized carousels, each capable of accepting an entire planeload of A380 bags.
Both of these upgrades are part of a multiyear program to accommodate increased traffic with major international destinations via the A380, which Qantas will begin using for L.A. service this year, and also with midtier, international cities that can be served more effectively by the new Boeing Dreamliner 787.
The improvements to Bradley Terminal include incorporation of "in-line" baggage screening that will eliminate the extra step of walking checked bags to freestanding explosives-screening areas. This new baggage-screening infrastructure is being implemented at all nine LAX terminals and is expected to be completed next year.
The cost for terminals 1 through 8 is estimated at $577 million, while the price tag for Bradley Terminal is $140 million.
Capital improvement expenditures at LAX are expected to total $5 billion to $8 billion over the next 10 years, in marked contrast to a long lull in major facilities construction dating back to completion of Bradley Terminal in 1984.
Much of the long-range plan is targeted at improving infrastructure for international traffic: Construction on and immediately adjacent to Bradley Terminal will continue for several years, with eight more gates expected to be added by 2012.
Even as LAX continues to build, more international carriers are coming.
Both Emirates and Virgin Blue International Airlines (with service to Sydney via its V Australia brand) have announced LAX service this year.
In addition, Alitalia is returning next month after an absence of several years, and Vietnam Airlines is expected to begin service later this year.
Several existing carriers are expanding international service to L.A., including British Airways, Eva Air, United Airlines and Air China.
In addition, Air France last month began daily, nonstop service between Los Angeles and London. Next month, Korean Air will commence service from LAX to Sao Paulo, Brazil.
To contact reporter Lester Craft, send e-mail to [email protected].