Skip to content

The legacy of LAX

Rising about 132 feet above the tarmac, the new Tom Bradley terminal at Los Angeles International Airport–or el-a-ex (LAX), as it is more popularly known–evokes thoughts of a cresting wave breaking to the west. The new terminal is part of a $4.11 billion upgrade of one of the world’s busiest airports.

It could easily be symbolic of the great wave of prosperity and growth that swept over the city during Bradley’s 20-year term as mayor, from 1973 to 1993.

This second terminal is another tribute to the longest tenured mayor in Los Angeles history, and at least one of the greatest champions of the airport. In fact, Bradley could be termed the “transportation mayor,” having not only fostered expansion of the airport into the international terminus it came to be, but also having fought for a subway system, which has morphed into the light rail system that Angelenos now enjoy.

Additionally, during the Bradley years, the Port of Los Angeles reportedly became the largest and most productive in the nation. He has been called by some “the mayor who reshaped L.A.”

“He was a prism through which we can see both the rise of Los Angeles as an international city and the reemergence of a vibrant Black community that reaches back to the very beginnings of the pueblo . . .,” said a biography on Black America On Line. “His mayoralty was a time in which Los Angeles reconfigured itself, redefined itself.”

“This airport has always been a point of pride for the city,” said airport spokesman Albert Rodriguez. “We believe these improvements will carry us well into the 21st century. The Pacific Rim is vital. The Chinese market is opening up. Citizens there can travel more, and that means more local tourism and trade. We are looking forward to a bright future.”

Bradley, proved somewhat prophetic in focusing on the strategic importance of the Pacific Rim. He courted Latin and Asian countries, traveling to Pacific Rim nations often in his attempt to “position Los Angeles as its unofficial capital for an era of growing trade.”

However, there were consequences, according to the New York Times: “For years, as a new wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants were drawn to the city, both residential and commercial development went virtually unchecked”

“Mr. Bradley reached the height of his popularity, when he brought the Summer Games to Los Angeles in 1984,” said the Times article . . . . He had fought hard to bring the event to Los Angeles, but at the same time he forced a tough agreement with the International Olympic Committee to indemnify the city against any possible financial losses. The Los Angeles games were the first privately financed Olympics, and they turned a huge profit.”

The airport’s history, of course, extends back 83 years to Mines Field and beyond–long before Bradley came to power–to a lonely, dusty and frequently foggy Spanish Revival hangar similar in design to Union Station downtown amid acres of cows, crows, wildflowers and wetlands.

By the 1960s, it had become the natural, historic terminus of modern transcontinental flight. Four years ago, LAX began its return as an aviation icon with the start of construction of a redesigned airport.

The first Bradley Terminal opened for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In 2008, airport officials invested $737 million in an upgrade that included a new in-line baggage screening system and interior improvements to enhance the service and convenience to passengers and tenants.

The new terminal’s much larger gates will allow the facility to accommodate the new generation of aircraft–the behemoth Airbus A380 super jumbo jet and Boeing’s new ultra fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner–and also an expected increase in post-recession travel, particularly international travel within the Pacific Rim.

“This is an opportunity to position LAX into the future of air travel,” said Rodriguez. “Once Phases 1 and 2 are completed, LAX will be one of the world’s premier airports. We must accommodate the new larger, more fuel-efficient planes. If we don’t, these new aircraft will simply bypass LAX and land at a better location, such as San Francisco or Denver. The new planes can fly longer without refueling, and they will be transporting more passengers–more visitors to Los Angeles.”

The huge modernization at LAX is the largest public works project in Los Angeles history, reportedly creating about 40,000 construction-related jobs over the course of four years at no expected cost to the city’s general fund. Such monies typically come from airport operating revenues, capital improvement funds, passenger fees, revenue bonds, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Upon completion of the remodeling, the old Bradley terminal will be torn down.

A study published by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. predicts that, upon completion, the remodeling will infuse $6.89 billion into the local economy.

Completion of the Phase 1 west side gates and the Great Hall are scheduled for 2013. The soaring, 140,000-square-foot glass-paneled hall will offer premier dining and retail shopping as well as an unobstructed view of the downtown skyline. There will be 18 larger boarding gates/waiting areas, with nine of these new gates designed for the new-generation aircraft.

The next-generation Bradley Terminal will have gates on both sides. To accomplish this, much wider taxiways have been paved to allow pilots more maneuverability. There will be dual passenger loading bridges for faster boarding and deplaning, upgraded customs/immigration and federal inspection areas (partly funded by the TSA), and secured corridors between Terminal 3–the old Bradley Terminal–and Terminal 4 to allow connecting passengers an easier walk from one terminal to the next. The goal is that the facility can accommodate 4,000 passengers per hour, up from the current 2,800.

“LAX has limited space; we have to strike a balance between first-class service and our neighbors,” Rodriguez said. “We have been able to maintain full operation in all facets, while construction is taking place. It’s as though you’re doing a heart transplant in the middle of a marathon race. This is a very busy airport. We cannot suspend or slow down service.”

Officials expect travelers to benefit from more efficient, reliable elevators, escalators and walkways throughout the airport. These new energy-saving units are expected to help speed travelers more efficiently to their gates and baggage claim areas. The pedestrian upgrades are expected to be completed by 2016 (to be in full accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act). Also, the new Bradley International Terminal will feature large, high-definition flat-screen monitors and entertainment display audio zones in baggage claim areas. These displays are designed to greet arriving passengers with the latest information on destinations and events taking place in the Los Angeles area.

Taxilane S is among the already completed projects. Costing about $175 million, it connects Taxiway B on the south airfield to Taxiway E on the north, thereby providing ramp access for aircraft using the west gates of the new Bradley Terminal. The idea is to reduce aircraft congestion as well as shorten passenger delays during peak operating hours.

At $14 million, the new LAX Airport Response Coordination Center (staffed by airport and federal agency personnel) operates as the emergency nerve center by streamlining operational efficiency in the event of an accident or airport emergency.

A new LAX/LAFD Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Station, priced at about $14 million, will improve airfield safety by doubling the size of the original firehouse to seven bays to house response vehicles and equipment.

The famous Theme Building has been renovated ($12 million) with a unique “tuned mass damper” (essentially counter weights) on the roof to seismically retrofit the building. Its Encounter restaurant will remain in operation.

“Business remains quite brisk,” said Connie Bass, minority partner and marketing manager at the restaurant. “We are looking forward to hosting more guests. We are very excited about the new airport.”

At the start of construction in 2008, the South Airfield Improvement Project ($333 million) relocated a major runway to the south of its previous location, thereby providing arriving aircraft with a center taxiway for ground traffic instructions. The FAA and Los Angeles World Airports (LAX, Van Nuys, Ontario) utilize “runway status lights” which are designed to warn pilots about potential runway safety hazards. There are a series of red lights embedded in the pavement to warn pilots if it is unsafe to cross or enter a runway, or to take off at all.

A new, 64,000-square-foot central utility plant will sit adjacent to the Theme Building and control tower. This will house plant equipment, combustion gas turbines, heat-recovery steam generators, cooling towers, water refrigeration/heating equipment and ancillary pumps.

“We had to build up (four stories) instead of outward because of space limitations,” Rodriguez explained. “This is the true heart of the airport; we will now be much more energy efficient with increased use of green technology.” The new utility plant has been certified by the U.S. Green Building Council and is scheduled for use by August 2014 at an estimated cost of $438 million.

Commuter access to LAX is expected to be enhanced within greater Los Angeles by a proposed westward extension of the Metro Green Line (starting in Norwalk along the 105 Freeway but actually stopping short of LAX at Sepulveda Boulevard); the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor project (a light rail running along Crenshaw Boulevard from the Expo Line to the Green Line), and increased use of the existing FlyAway buses which depart from major transportation hubs.
Travelers from outlying areas such as the Antelope Valley can take the Metrolink train to Union Station downtown and then take a FlyAway bus to the airport.

“These new FlyAway buses are great,” Rodriguez noted. “They are more convenient for travelers, because they are essentially an express line. There is minimal traffic delay, less stopping than the conventional bus or streetcar, and less expensive than a taxi.”

Among the biggest issues today in airline travel are increased security and more efficient baggage handling. In a concession to that, a new in-line baggage-handling and screening system is expected to improve and automate the screening of checked baggage at all LAX terminals. The new system will incorporate a new outbound baggage conveyor system and installation/integration of new explosive detection system machines provided by the TSA.

A major change instituted at LAX after 9/11 was the regular use of “truck-size” screening machines inside the terminal, which considerably slowed the boarding process. “Those took up too much space; now all terminals get the in-line baggage system. That’s the way to go for the new airports,” Rodriguez said.

But despite the glowing words, some claim Blacks have been virtually excluded from participation in the multibillion-dollar project–as they have been in most public works projects in recent years.

Of the 40,000-plus jobs projected by some private firms over the next eight years, Rodriguez said the primary contractor, Walsh-Austin Joint Venture, reported that there were 88 African American workers on site in February. Accordingly to city tracking logs, 14 African American firms are contracted, and some have multiple contracts. State legislation requires that a minimum of 30 percent of all new contractors be a minority firm. However, Drexell Johnson, director of the Young Black Contractors Assn., maintains that there are no African American firms working on the renovation project which has allowed subcontractors to exclude African American workers.

“This has been going on for years,” said Johnson. “You have to stand up when others won’t. Within the various trade unions, there is a blatant disregard for the Black community. If you hire Black contractors, then we can send our people out to work. Right now with all the construction taking place in Los Angeles, there is not one Black firm working for a contract valued at more than $1 million.”

Johnson has confronted such hiring discrimination since the late 1980s, when his construction firm–the only Black firm on the site–installed barrier rails along the Alameda Corridor in Southeast Los Angeles.

In mid-March, Johnson met in Washington, D.C., with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and a contingent of California congressional representatives to discuss what he termed the “national disgrace” of rejecting qualified Black construction professionals. “This is more than a local problem; this type of discrimination is taking place across the country, in broad daylight, and Black politicians seem to say nothing,” Johnson said. “They were there during terrible times of past discrimination, but where are they now?”

In response to President Barack Obama’s 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, state legislation was passed to encourage more participation by women- and minority-owned construction firms to use California’s $625 million portion of stimulus funds. At the same time, an earlier law passed by voters, (Prop. 209) banned affirmative action in education and hiring practices in California. African American contractors statewide declare that they have seen only a small fraction of this federal money.

Johnson also said some $300 million in non-stimulus funds were allocated by the Airport Board of Commissioners without any bids.

“There was no competition, particularly among Black firms. This is the typical cronyism and nepotism used for years to shut us out. It’s the old story of ‘Blacks don’t want to work,’” Johnson added, “or ‘they won’t travel that far to work.’ There is no excuse today for such discrimination . . . it goes on until someone speaks up. Sacramento has passed legislation making it mandatory to hire minority contractors, but local politicians ignore it. The legislation needs to be strengthened.”

The federal stimulus package does mark a way of bypassing certain stipulations of Proposition 209, because various counties cannot distribute the money from Sacramento unless they meet federal anti-discrimination laws. Thus the dilemma: if a state or municipal building project makes a concerted effort to hire a minority firm, then the hiring process is in violation of state law (Prop. 209). If no effort is put forth to include women and people of color, then federal non-discrimination laws are violated. In almost every case, the laws have worked against African Americans, but not for them.

In effect, because Recovery Act dollars are from the federal government, the state must follow federal laws, when it spends the money. And those federal restrictions include a set aside for the so-called Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (i.e. minority construction firms). To date, the airport project has not used any federal stimulus funds.

Because of Bradley, African Americans can look at the airport with a hint of pride. But because of exclusionary hiring, they may look at it as a place of shame.