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LAX: In defense of our humble international airport

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


Comments () | Archives (34)

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Nick Pace

Absolutely spot on. LAX is far from pretty and the failure to extend the Metro Green Line to the terminals is embarrassing for a world class city. That being said, it is the easiest mega-sized airport I know of for dropping off and picking up passengers from the specific terminal that they are using. At so many other airports (Dulles, Atlanta, and Denver are good examples), you arrive at the entrance only to find that you must then take a train or transporter to your terminal, a process that can add a half hour or more. The overall times at LAX from curbside to gate beats all of those highly touted and hyper-modern aviation hubs, which must depend on impressive architecture, wonderful art displays, and yes, clean bathrooms to distract the traveler from the fact that they are are nowhere near the gate or baggage claim. Luggage retrieval times are decent, they've done a reasonable job of adapting to post-911 security issues, and if you stick to the top deck for both dropping off and picking up passengers, traffic isn't as horrible as people make it out to be. LAX might be showing its age but it's paid for and thankfully we're not living in a city so lacking in cultural amenities that we have to rely on a visit to the freakin' airport for upscale dining, high-end shopping, or fine art. The only thing we care about is whether our local airport offers reasonably priced fares to anywhere in the world with a minimum of hassle to get to and from the plane. Check, check, and check.


Try having Logan or LaGuardia as your primary airport for a while: you'll Love LAX!


I agree. LAX is a strange beast, yet it still is reliable and offers a great array of direct flights and reasonable prices. Who wants to sit around in an airport anyway!?

You only need those fancy restaurants when you are delayed for hours due to the aforementioned fog ;)

Anyway, I just got back from New Zealand on a direct flight on Air New Zealand out of LAX. Was it a great terminal - NO. But I paid $7 / day to park and spent no more than 2hrs in the airport max so who cares? Last summer I flew out of JFK to Europe and it is dump compared to LAX (my opinion) and much less convinient to get around.


I am not a regular international traveler but I did fly out of LAX's international terminal Dec. 2009 and I would have been tickled pink to find a McD's or Burger King past the security area. I had arrived within the recommended "four hour window" and the only thing there was past security was a nasty Coney Island stand service hot dogs, microwave pizza and nachos with slimy cheese sauce a jalapeno slices. Besides when does the international terminal have anything to do with the domestic ones? They are two seperate areas and the International terminal is a disgrace. Not to mention try flying to Florida on a non-stop, which I do numerous times a year... non-existant unless you like flying redeye.

Alan Dean Foster

Sure, there are worse airports than LAX, and it has to deal with far more traffic than most. But when you come back from someplace like Northern Borneo (Northern Borneo, fer crissake!) and not one but two aiports (Kuching and Kota Kinabalu) put LAX and many American airports to shame, then it really hits home that infrastructure improvement in the U.S. is, if not falling behind the rest of the world, in a serious state of stagnation.


We fly American Airlines a lot out of LAX and most of the time we love it. If you know how to maneuver around, where to park and how to get from one place to another, it really works. Also, using the Admiral's Club lounge as a refuge saves a lot on the nerves. However, it does need updating because it was never designed to handle the hordes of people using it, and more dining spots. There is an extensive remodeling plan underway, including bringing rail transit directly into the airport and a people mover inside the loop. It will get better. By the way, we HATE SFO. Once you get behind the ultra ex[pensive and usually empty Inetrnational Terminal, the old facility is a mess. Talk about the dirty, cramped and depressing domestic areas, although they do have a few more restaurants thank goodness, because of the inevitable air traffic control delays.

Frequent Flyer

I have flown quite a bit and LAX does a great job considering its location and age. The International Terminal is ghetto compared to most airports though.

It's also very easy to get to your terminal here. I flew through Dubai last month and had to go through security AGAIN and then walk briskly for 15 minutes to get to my gate on the other end of the airport. I had a 2+ hour layover and even though my flight was on time I got to my next flight 10 minutes AFTER it had started boarding. That's the problem with having a mall and all that other stuff in an airport.


sorry there is no defense for LAX generally speaking. im sure people that fly regularly can agree that this place looks like a crumbling shantytown compared to other cities. yet, you see probalby more bentleys, Jags BMWs etc parked there in more number that anywhere. its a disgrace really. if you are a woman you are on your own trying to get to your car safely at night if you are in the structure - lighting is often broken, elevators stuck in the shafts necessitating a longer walk in isolation to try and get back to your car. and now they want to expand upon this monstrosity so that the air traffic controller tower will no longer get a visual on many taxing airplanes = ugly design with increased safety problems built right in. luv it. we wont even talk about how filthy the bathrooms are most of the time, horrible.


bill is from san francisco?...


LAX needs free WiFi. Top airports here in the United States offer that feature.

Remove parking and the roadways from the central terminal area, build a two way rail transport systems (like JFK), and move the terminals closer to the transporation. Make the Manchester Square acquisitions useful.

Henry Ford

It may be humble but just like LA, LAX is a disgrace.


I haven't lived near LA since 2006, but while there I flew out of LAX regularly. Its biggest problems are all the result of long-obsolete capacity design and the necessity of tacking on the clusterfrak that is post-September 11 security theater. I can't really blame LAX itself too hard for either of those. Certainly LaGuardia and Logan are frequently more hellish to deal with.

But that doesn't make LAX's problems ok. For travelers connecting to other flights, you have to admit that the layout, navigability, and signage are pretty bad. The on-timeage is good, but SFO, LGA, and BOS can't be blamed for their weather and LAX doesn't get to slide for having nice weather. And the fact is that one of the world's major cities has as its first representative an airport you might expect in a budget-struggling place like Detroit or El Paso, a shambling, shabby mess lacking in adequate facilities that has not kept up with capacity and navigable design, let alone aesthetics. There are many things to defend about LA, but LAX ain't one of them.

On the other hand, at least there's an In-N-Out nearby if you can get out. SFO, OAK and SJC don't have that (though they do mostly have decent provisions before *and* after security, and at SFO the excellent and plentiful Cantonese places in Millbrae are only a direct-connect BART stop away).


I'll say this: I'd take crappy facilities and service for on-time service. ANY DAY.
I am an Angeleno and can attest that LAX is in fact one of the worst MAJOR airports within the U.S. (don't even take it international, because that's when it gets embarrassing. I am sure there are 3rd world countries with better airports. I'm being totally serious). But Hilton's ranting smacks of a NorCal superiority complex.

"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."

I agree. Though there should be SOMETHING other than a McDonalds or Burger King. Esp. in LA, for God's sake.

Jeff Pruett

Having flown onto a dusty, dirt landing field in Africa and LAX; I agree with Spud Hilton. Your argument is "Oh yeah? Well we're better than you...!"


LAX is mostly catered to the domestic flights. With 7 terminals and only one devoted to internal flights, LAX l is ill equipped to handle the large numbers of international flights that are coming and leaving LA everyday. Having flown out of LAX every year for the past ten years to go to Asia, I could see the gradual improvement but the pace is too slow. Improvements are desperately needed to bring LAX up to par with airports such as the ones in Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Bangkok. I am not talking about fancy shops and restaurants. Is having clean restrooms too much to ask for? Instead of spending the money to expand LAX, the City should use the resources to turn Ontario into an international airport and keep LAX as a domestic hub.


LAX is far from perfect, however I have been to many other airports in the world that are much worse. And many of course are much better, towards the top of the list. I think Mr. Hilton was a tad harsh with his critique of our little (big) southland international airport. I do often wonder what the city council, developers, architechts, etc. were thinking when they built (and continue to tweek) LAX. My biggest complaint...the traffic and all the shuttle buses! There is just no easy way to fetch someone from the airport without risking your life with the HUGE car rental and parking lot buses. LAX is a bit of an embarassment for us...but come on, it ain't that bad! And....we don't have the delays SFO does!! :)


Who cares about the structure...it's an airport...get through it quickly and safely and it's all good. Why spend millions, or Obama billions to make it pretty? Use the money for more important matters...like paying down CA. debt.

Frightened flyer

When I fly out of LAX my concerns are not the bathrooms or whether MacDonald's is open. It is whether I will make it out. I am in the aviaition industry so perhaps I know more than the airport wants me to.

Since Jan 1st there have been seven runway incursions. Two of them caused by the very people who are entrusted to make the airport safe. Close calls with airplanes are more of my concern then eating a Whopper with french fries.

Heaven forbid LAX is subjected to an earthquake because the newly built megamillion dollar emergency reponse center is built on the top floor of an old and not retrofitted building. The emergency reponders will need help instead of helping.

Terminal projects are nice and pretty but peoples' safety should be paramont.


If all you had to do was jump out of your car and walk to your plane LAX wouldn't be that bad. But considering you HAVE to spend time in the facility LAX can be almost as bad as waiting for a train at Penn station in NY. At least Penn has better food outlets. Yes, SFO is a great airport but it is pretty small in comparison to the western gateway to the US that is LAX. It would be nice if the funding was available to start rebuilding LAX as they are attempting at JFK. But that is a long ways out in our current financial situation. I hate LAX but it is what it is and I love LA... warts and all.

Tim Bowman

You forgot one key point that makes LAX so unpleasant: it has the worst TSA and civilian security features in the free world. Getting to the gate at Tom Bradley terminal is an exercise in pain and futility that makes Port-au-Prince seem efficient.


When coming from Asia, I never go through LAX or Chicago. You have a 100% chance of a plane bounce there.

Ben Vanaman

Oh, Henry! Tsk, tsk.

Although this has nothing to do with being a passenger, I'll say one thing for LAX. It has the best places to watch planes (i.e. the observation tower; the small park next to In-and-Out on the north side; Clutter's Park on the south) of any airport I've ever been to.


Obviously, Spud Hilton (is that a real name?) has never traveled to the innermost circle of hell, the Newark Airport. It makes LAX look luxurious by comparison.


Ugly or whatever, LAX works (though it helps to know your way around). I don't go to an airport to shop or dine; I go there to catch a plane or pick someone up. I like the new international arrivals; the curbside service; the palm trees, neon towers, and Encounter. I like taking off over the beach and coming in to land alongside the San Bernardino mountains.

I also like SF but the locals can be smugly insufferable.

Darshan Acharya

I have to disagree with this columnists defense. I have traveled extensively internationally and abroad, and of the major airports I've used, only Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris can match LAX for dysfunction and poor layout, difficult navigation, and yes, poor shopping and dining options. Scratch that. CDG and Dulles.

Atlanta, for example, while not perfect, provides a much better experience for the volume of traffic that passes through, and handles passengers with more ease than LAX. Ohare, Seattle, Portland, Denver, SFO, Mumbai, Dubai, Auckland, etc., etc., all beat LAX in my book.

Bottom line: LAX is a dump. Maybe not the only one (see CDG, Dulles), but a turd that cannot be polished. Raze and replace it.


Anyone who has had the misfortune to have spent any time passing through London Heathrow will tell you LAX isn't so bad in comparison


LAX is a palace compared with the horror of Degaulle,the main airport for Paris.


LAX is a fabulous airport, which is very user friendly; however, I cannot understand why the airport is not kept up, with new decor, seats , restaurants etc. These improvements are cheap. The airport is am embarrassment to LA from the appearance perspective. As the first encounter our tourists and business partners experience don't we want it to look better.


Spot on for the comment from Nick Pace.

I go to the airport to either 1) fly out/in or 2) pick-up / drop-off someone. LA beats any other airport I've been to in those terms. The time from curb to gate is almost unbeatable - and there is no need for taking trains/people movers etc. You're right where you need to be - near the gate.

Folks looking for fine dining, art, shopping and fanciness at the airport should rethink their travel priorities. Airports are not hangout spots, they're places where you hop on your plane. I am happy not having to pay extra for services that I don't need.


LAX is an absolute embarrassment. Whenever I have friends from other countries visit and pick them up from the airport they have a look of absolute horror on their face when they come out to the waiting area.
The author seems completely unaware that there are huge areas of the airport that have no food choices of any kind. Citing LA's role as a hub as a plus is a bizarre argument - it is a great airport because of geography?
I love LA. It is a great city despite the what the haters think. The airport though is just plain awful.


I think that both writers here miss the point. Yes, flying out of SFO stinks. While amenities are fairly decent, but you can not trust the timing (at least for a domestic route). This is a serious enough issue to cause me to try to avoid that airport as best I can. LAX has pretty bad facilities and frankly the international terminal past security is among the worst I have experienced. When you travel internationally, you don't have a great way to gauge the security lines and so amenities past security matter (and I am talking about some basic fast food or restaurant choice NOT artwork or layout). It really is not much of a defense to say "It is horrible, but you have it bad too".

As to the rest, I really do try to use the "commuter" airports as opposed to LAX whenever possible because it is that much easier.


One recent Friday evening I was flying out of LAX to SFO.

At LAX, my plane was delayed (typical of this route at this hour), but no one had any information about what was going on (which should be easy to provide, given how typical these delays are on this route at this hour).

The waiting area was crowded, dirty, and depressing. People looked sad, and exhausted. But to make matters worse, the "dining options" included only one place that was open and close enough to the gate to try. The food there was poor quality especially for the inflated airport pricing, and the service was terrible. It looked to me that customers who weren't getting drunk felt ripped off.

Overall, the image I left LA with was of a cruddy, run-down, expensive, fluorescent-bright consumer wasteland populated by unwilling zombies barely able to stand.

Finally I arrived at SFO. The terminal was spotless, well lit, and attractive. In the haze of my exhaustion, everything seemed lighter than air - as if people and luggage moved without friction.

I walked by a restaurant on my way to the airport exit. In contrast to the down-at-the-heels crowd picking over soggy fries at LAX, in SFO, everyone in the chainstore gourmet joint looked happy, well-fed, comfortable, enthusiastic - "shiny"! Eager conversation, good friends, TV-glow, you know the image. All smiles. I felt like I had arrived in Philip K. Dick's "Perky Pat" stories, having fled a consumer wasteland to arrive in some haven of consumer bliss.

The contrasting "before-and-after," "LAX and SFO" images of that evening were so stereotypical that they still make me laugh.

But honestly, we can do better at LAX! Fewer delays does not mean no delays, and overall, LAX is pathetic.


I like LAX. Every time I fly in, I am overwhelmed with the feeling of being home. Maybe it doesn't have fancy-fair but, let's be honest, most of the travelers can't afford it anyway. Just be glad its there and operational and safe.

Arthur M.

LAX may not be the hippest airport in terms of shops and food, but it gets the job done. Like someone above already stated, I go to the airport because I have a plane to catch. I couldn't care less about the shopping options, and I don't need a plethora of fine dining eateries. All I care about (mostly) is that my flight is on time (which it usually is at LAX) and that the security lines aren't insane (which normally they aren't). I also like that the distance from check in/ security to your gate is usually very short. You don't have to walk for miles or take a train to get there.

Yes, LAX is showing its age and definitly needs some TLC but for someone to actually suggest razing it is a little extreme. Any patron of LAX who's been to Newark, LaGuardia, Miami International or heaven forbid, London Heathrow, can tell you that LAX is seventh heaven compared to those airports.



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