Steel beams are slowly rising on the west side of Los Angeles International Airport, serving as the most visible reminder that a panacea is finally on the way for the much-maligned facility.
The hub of construction centers around the Tom Bradley International Terminal, which is finally getting an overdue makeover. | PHOTOS
The building was poorly planned and quickly built to accommodate an influx of travelers for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. This time around, city and airport leaders are making sure the $1.5 billion project, dubbed "Bradley West," is done right.
"The Bradley terminal is the front door of the airport and Los Angeles for the international community, and that front door needed a lot of work," said Michael Lawson, president of the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners, the seven-member civilian panel that oversees LAX.
"When you compared the experience to be had at other major airports around the world, well, the Bradley terminal just didn't compare," Lawson said. "Once this is completed, it will make the experience much more inviting and people will have a reason to come back."
Bradley West is the largest in a series of modernization projects under way at LAX, which include renovations of Terminals 4, 5 and 6 and the construction of a new utility plant that will provide power to the refurbished airport.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is scheduled Tuesday to discuss the regional economic impact of the entire $4.1billion worth of airport renovations, which began in 2007 with safety improvements to the southern runways.
Airport officials declined to immediately provide the figures, but, on its own, the Bradley West construction project has generated about 4,000 jobs.
"In an era where most of the news is bad, where the economy is causing everybody a bit of grief and the unemployment rate in California is pretty lousy, what's going on out here is defying gravity," said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX.
"Specifically, Bradley West will put us in the upper echelon of our competing airports on the West Coast," Lindsey said. "Worldwide, we're going to put ourselves on the map for a facility that will become an icon."
When completed, the renovated Tom Bradley International Terminal will double in size to 2.1 million square feet. The main concourse will be demolished to make way for two new concourses on the north and south sides of the building.
Expanded baggage claim areas, more federal inspection booths and improved retail and dining selections will be housed in a building that will provide more natural sunlight.
Most importantly, the expanded terminal will have 18 new airline gates, half of which will be able to accommodate the next generation of super-sized jetliners.
"What we're trying to do in five years is what most airports would do in about eight years, and the rush is all due to the big bird that's sitting out there," Lindsey said, pointing out a window toward an Airbus A380 jetliner operated by Qantas Airlines.
In 2008, Qantas executives made it clear that they were thinking about moving their A380 flights from LAX to San Francisco because Los Angeles did not yet have a firm plan that would meet the needs of the world's largest passenger jetliner.
At the time, the sticking point for the Australian carrier was the fact that LAX had initially planned to direct the plane to "remote gates," which would have required passengers to catch a shuttle to the Bradley terminal for screening by federal authorities.
In response, LAX officials quickly renovated a pair of airline gates at the Bradley terminal that are now capable of handling the behemoth aircraft.
The move still didn't please executives with several international airlines, who were concerned that the outdated facility would be unable to handle an anticipated influx of A380 flights by 2012.
The concern moved airport and city officials into action. By October 2009, the Los Angeles City Council signed off on the Bradley terminal expansion, making it the largest public works project in the city's history.
"This project isn't just for Qantas because there are a number of other airlines that have purchased the A380 and plan to come to Los Angeles once the new facilities are in place," said Wally Mariani, Qantas Airlines' senior executive vice president for the Americas.
"I think it has been nothing short of magnificent how LAX has brought this project along," Mariani said. "You see more digging, more tunnels and lots of expansion every day, so everyone expects it to be done on time. It's really an outstanding achievement."
The anticipated arrival of A380 flights to LAX slowed over the past two years amid the economic recession. However, Singapore Airlines and Korean Air each plan to launch one A380 flight from LAX later this year, while Qantas intends to add a third A380 jetliner to its Los Angeles routes in 2012.
The international airlines housed inside the Bradley terminal will pay for part of the renovation, while the rest will be funded by airport bonds.
As a result, the carriers are keeping an eye on the price tag, but agree that the project is a "step in the right direction for Los Angeles," said Cyriel Kronenberg, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, the trade group representing about 230 domestic and overseas airlines.
"The airlines have been vocal in the past about the need for changes, but they want to avoid any cost overruns that would make this project more expensive than they can handle," Kronenberg said. "It's certainly something that's needed to keep L.A. on pace with other airports in the United States."
The terminal expansion remains on schedule and within budget, airport officials said.
Improvements are finally coming to LAX after airports in San Francisco, Denver, Dallas and other major hubs throughout the country were expanded and modernized over the past decade.
LAX came to the party late, mostly because city leaders were stymied by a mix of bureaucracy and opposition from communities surrounding the airport. Efforts to update LAX came to a standstill in 2005, when the county, three airport-adjacent cities and a community group opposed to airport expansion filed a lawsuit.
That logjam was finally broken more than five years ago when Villaraigosa brokered a settlement that allowed the city to move ahead with so-called "green light" elements of his predecessor's plan, including improvements to the Bradley terminal.
Villaraigosa then appointed Lindsey in 2007 to oversee LAX, mostly due to her success with a major modernization project at Seattle's airport and transforming the airport in Anchorage, Alaska, into an international cargo hub.
"The mayor and Gina Marie Lindsey are really taking advantage of a perishable opportunity to improve LAX in a short amount of time," said Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
"So many of our citizens have probably never been to the international terminal and don't fly overseas very often, so they may not immediately appreciate the value of this investment," Toebben said. "But the mayor and Gina Marie understand that LAX is an important part of our economy and an important part of the first impression we give to the rest of the world."
Crews finally went to work on the Bradley terminal expansion in February 2010. Every day, the construction site is bustling with up to 600 workers confronted with a set of unusual challenges.
Construction must be completed while the building is teeming with travelers. Large jetliners maneuver past the workers, making their way to four active runways and a maze of taxiways.
Most importantly, crews must make up for time that was lost to an unusually rainy winter. Steel beams cannot be set into rain-soaked ground, and the project must be completed in less than 20 months, said Michael Doucette, LAX's program manager for Bradley West.
"It's almost like building a skyscraper lying on its side," Doucette said. "By this time next year, we'll have about 1,500 construction workers out here to get it done on time."
Curved steel beams, meant to evoke lapping waves of the nearby Pacific Ocean, are assembled on the ground. A crane hoists the heavy girders and gingerly sets each one into place, in what will eventually become the terminal's rooftop.
The unique design, drawn up by Denver-based Fentress Architects, makes it difficult for workers to gain their footing, thanks to a 90-degree dip at the end of each wave.
"It's a pretty neat design, but the roof is really hard to walk on," said Brian Williams, a spokesman for Walsh Austin Joint Venture, the construction firm charged with assembling the terminal.
"We haven't had any slips or accidents," Williams said. "But we trained the workers on fall protection in the roof area in particular."
City and airport officials boast that work will wrap up by a self-imposed deadline of Dec. 12, 2012, but that's only when the first portion of the renovated Bradley terminal will be open for business.
After that, an older area of the terminal will be demolished as construction continues on several other airline gates through November 2013.
While other airport improvements are under way, it's the international terminal that will stand as a "model for the world on how to build a world-class facility," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX.
"This will be the first encounter that people from all over the world will have with Los Angeles, and I want it to be a positive experience," Rosen-
dahl said. "I think when it's all done, we'll all look at each other and say a collective `wow."'