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LAX shows off its bright, shiny Tom Bradley International Terminal


Officials at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) last week were practically giddy in showing off the new Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), part of $4.1 billion capital improvement project at the aging airport. Once the ultimate destination point during the early jet age, LAX has been passed over by travelers (and airlines) of late for more modern airports west of the Rockies such as San Francisco International, Seattle-Tacoma and the ultra-modern Denver International. LAX has not witnessed major improvement since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when the first Tom Bradley Terminal opened.

Hollywood has traditionally shown the famous theme building when the storyline involved LAX, but now the Great Hall—resembling a cresting wave breaking over the nearby shore—will likely be the world’s first image of the new LAX.

The facility won’t open until later this year, but many among the hundreds of press personnel and business leaders—even in sometimes jaded Los Angeles—were heard to remark: “… it has that new-car aroma.” Workers were still busy laying tile and carpeting, painting walls and ceilings and shining and polishing. The Great Hall, spanning 150,000 square feet, was designed to compete with the world’s most high-end and high-tech terminals, thereby reflecting the city itself as the “front door” to America.

“In my travels, I heard more than once that LAX had the worst passenger experience of any airport in a modern city,” said outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “Well, that’s the old LAX. This beautiful new facility will be the first experience visitors have of Los Angeles; people are going to know that we’ve gone from the worst to the best. It’s truly the first and last impression nine million travelers have of Los Angeles every year. It gives travelers the first-class airport experience they expect from a world-class city like Los Angeles.”

The new TBIT, designed and constructed by Walsh Austin Joint Venture (i.e. who also designed the new Inchon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, and the new Raleigh-Durham Airport in North Carolina) may create some 2,000 permanent concession jobs in some of the finest retail and restaurant outlets any luxury shopping district could offer. The duty-free stores (valued at $25 million alone) remind you of a stroll along Rodeo Drive, offering Christian Dior, Van Cleef & Arpels and Estee Lauder perfumes, to Louis Vuitton handbags and Prada shoes. Even Bvlgari jewelry, Victoria’s Secret and Hugo Boss are there to encourage the international clientele to return home with a bit of the Los Angeles lifestyle.

There’s more. With Los Angeles famous for its international cuisine, just about every type of dining experience—from Japanese sushi to Brazilian barbecue—can be found among the 60 upscale retail and dining outlets (including 22 local brands) at the Great Hall (officially Antonio Villaraigosa Pavilion). Westfield, famous for its shopping malls, will manage the terminal which, beside its luxury dining, adds “health-smart” and fast food outlets.

The ceiling soars to 110 feet, framing huge glass walls that provide unobstructed views of the airport. High-tech video displays (called “Responsive Media”) provide a digital glimpse and an accompanying audio sound from faraway destinations such as Bejiing; Santiago, Chile; London or Sidney). Pubs, bars and even wine cellars rival the best five-star hotels.

The 72-foot-tall “Time and Tower” is a moving digital display known as an integrated environmental media system (IEMS). First introduced at many Asian and European airports, it is an interactive media structure with changing clock faces.

“We will set the standard for airports worldwide,” said Earnest Wooden, president and CEO the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. He and Villaraigosa returned this month from Bejiing where they met with China President Xi Jinping who said tourism is the “lifeblood of communication” between nations. “Asian tourists aspire to come to Los Angeles,” Wooden continued. “The press there is reporting more on tourism and the West Coast, particularly Los Angeles, which is rapidly becoming a destination point from Asia, the South Pacific and from South America.” Wooden said one in three Chinese visitors to the United States will stop in Los Angeles.

The Great Hall features natural lighting that acknowledges the region’s temperate climate, while an aluminum roof arches over the column-free structure; the views are impressive looking toward the adjacent terminals and hotels. From some locations, visitors can glimpse the downtown lights 12 miles to the north. The 18 new boarding gates/waiting areas (all WiFi ready with charging ports for electronic gadgets) are larger to accommodate the new-generation aircraft (the behemoth Airbus A380, and Boeing’s 747-8 Intercontinental and its 787 Dreamliner), with eight of the Airbus gates featuring three levels for swift boarding and deplaning.

This year, passenger volume at LAX has increased 2.9 percent (63.6 million passengers) over last year, with domestic traffic up 3.1 percent to 46.5 million visitors. By year’s end, the number of takeoffs and landings will surpass the 605,480 in 2012 figure. Clearly, though, LAX is preparing for the expected influx of visitors from China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan because more money is flowing in those economies, more international markets have been opened and, increasingly, travel restrictions in China are being lifted as that nation invests more into Western commerce.

“The increase in passenger activity at LAX is attributable to airlines starting new international service; an improving Asia-Pacific regional economy, and a modest but perceptible strengthening of the Southern California economy,” said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, the body that operates LAX as well as Van Nuys and Ontario airports and a portion of Palmdale airport.

Officials boast the new TBIT will generate $98 million in annual sales. “The overall goal of the LAX Modernization Program is to dramatically improve the passenger experience with a building designed to capture the spirit of Los Angeles, while establishing new levels of passenger convenience and comfort. We are creating an airport that is safer and more secure, more energy efficient, and customer friendly with the types of services and amenities passengers demand today,” said Lindsey.