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LAX: In defense of our humble international airport

March 17, 2011 |  6:30 am

LaxHaving passed through the aviation palaces in Amsterdam, Detroit (the Delta Air Lines terminal, anyway) and Oslo (trust me), I know our humble Los Angeles International Airport comes up short on numerous counts. Dirty bathrooms, cramped facilities, less-than-seamless transiting -- check on all three, plus poor concessions and confusing signage to anyone with an imperfect attention span. But is our aviation hub so beyond repair, such a "useless, fetid dump of steel, concrete, glass and so much bad juju," that it ought to be put out of its misery and paved over, as San Francisco Chronicle travel editor Spud Hilton writes? He begins:

Granted, bashing lousy airports is one of the worst cliches in travel. In the case of Los Angeles International Airport, however, I'm not just venting. I truly believe life on Earth would be vastly improved if we paved over this useless, fetid dump of steel, concrete, glass and so much bad juju that even die-hard atheists cross themselves before stepping through its portals of evil.

Are there airports with fewer services, deeply greedy workers and, in comes cases, no walls? Yes. You could argue that a tiny shack next to a landing strip in northern Nigeria would be worse.

Nope. I'm talking about expectations. If you're in an airport deep in the jungle of a developing nation, you expect there to be, um, issues. If you're in one of the largest, most modern metropolitan regions in North America, you should expect a better experience than what passengers get from a place frequently called "Hell-AX."

Hell-AX has a nice ring to it. That concession aside, I had a feeling Hilton would dust off tired tropes about Los Angeles when he acknowledged at the outset that "bashing lousy airports is one of the worst cliches in travel." Hilton, a travel editor, is doubtless capable of conjuring more creative criticisms of Los Angeles, a city so flawed that even its most partisan boosters take a warts-and-all approach to polishing its grimy image. But a "no-walking DMZ"? Bad air quality, really? An Angeleno complaining about Bay Area snobs seizing every opportunity to bash L.A. is a cliche, but Hilton fits the bill here.

The crux of my defense is this: Though LAX lacks the impressive (and expensive) international terminal, world-class cuisine and high-end retail found in, say, San Francisco's airport, it has what ought to be the envy of most major hubs: an impressive roster of low-cost carriers to complement the largest number of international flights on the West Coast. It also demolishes San Francisco on punctuality, thanks to SFO's crisscross runway layout that brings operations nearly to a halt in foggy weather.

The stream of complaints about LAX and other less-attractive terminals has led me to believe there's something about airports that turns average Wal-Mart and Target shoppers into discriminating consumers of fine retail. People often content to grab a quick bite on the way home after work suddenly notice -- and complain -- that there are few fresh-fare alternatives to McDonald's and Burger King while waiting in the terminal for their ultra-low-fare flight across the country. Fair enough, but LAX has plenty going for it -- the kind of stuff that matters more to travelers' wallets than pretty international terminals and fine dining.   

-- Paul Thornton

Photo: A traveler walks between terminals with a view of of the air traffic control tower and the theme building at LAX. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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