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LAX Alternate Universe

LAX is one of the oldest large-hub airports in the United States. There have been hundreds, if not thousands of planning studies during its lifetime. Some projects came to fruition, some didn’t. Here we are going to look at some of the potential airport futures that could have been.

1940s Master Planning

The Department of Airports created a Master Plan for the airport in early 1943, proposing eastward expansion of the field and construction of new terminals and administration buildings. United Air Lines, TWA, Western Air, American Airlines and Pan American Airways all faced hardships as the manufacturing of P-38 fighter aircraft by Lockheed severely cramped the airlines’ operations at the Burbank Airport. The carriers reviewed the proposal and agreed to relocate to the Los Angeles airport  after the end of hostilities and the completion of the proposed facilities at the field. Revisions were made to the plan and a new master plan was released in August 1944. It projected two phases of development: an initial stage to immediately accommodate commercial operations and a subsequent, long-range expansion of the field to the west.

While the initial iterations of the Master Plan had both sets of parallel runways largely to the east of the airport property, that changed as the north runway pair shifted westward in to the configuration that we are more familiar with today. That shift also did not require a second tunneling of Sepulveda Blvd. as the north runway thresholds were located just west of Sepulveda.

Early 1950s Master PLanning

In 1951, the architectural team of William L. Pereira and Charles Luckman was hired to develop a new Master Plan for the Airport. They conceived a futuristic terminal built inside a gigantic glass dome. The dome, housing a mini-city of passenger services and inspiring future cartoons such as the Jetsons, was to be located on the west side of Sepulveda Boulevard between 10,000-foot runways.
Placed on the May 1953 city ballot, the bond issue for this plan was not approved by the city’s voters. Despite this plan not moving forward, it served as the basis for future Master Plan studies.

1956 Master plan

The 50s in aviation was the era of jet travel. With larger and faster jets and the introduction of “economy class”, more Americans were able head skyward. Though the 1951 Master Plan failed at the ballot, the rapidly increasing passenger numbers was overwhelming the 40s era temporary terminals serving passengers at the time. The Department of Airports turned back to Pereira and Luckman again to design new facilities. This time, the firm coordinated with two other planning and architectural firms, Welton Becket & Associates and Paul R. Williams forming a joint venture. In June 1956, city voters approved a $60 million bond issue for the new development. Los Angeles was now ready to build a jet-age airport.
An innovative design was envisioned by the co-designers. The plan distributed passenger activity over six terminal processing buildings that faced onto a U shaped access road. The terminal buildings were connected to remote buildings called satellites by underground passageways. Baggage routed by underground conveyor belts and passengers could traverse the subterranean corridors without being exposed to the rain, noise, and jet blast. Each of the seven oval-shaped satellites was larger than a football field and housed waiting areas, a cocktail lounge, a coffee shop, gift stores, and news stands. Each had ten gate positions and passenger loading bridges for enplaning and deplaning passengers. Ticketing buildings and satellites were ringed around a sunken half-mile long mall that held parking for 5,000 cars, a restaurant, an employee cafeteria, electrical and heating plants, and the airport administration building.

Final Central Terminal Area Concept

Late 1960s Master Planning

In 1967, a new Master Plan, developed by the Department of Airports, again working with the architectural and planning firm, William Pereira & Associates, was released.

With growing passenger demand, terminal improvements were already being planned to accommodate the growing appetite for air-travel.

The Master Plan also sought to relieve traffic pressure at LAX by building small localized metroports throughout the urban areas of Southern California. LAX and these metroports would be interconnected through large people moving modular helicopters or short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. An article on this subject is forthcoming.

The Master Plan proposed that the West Terminal and Terminal 1 landside and processing functions such as check-in, security, bag-claim, concessions, roadways, curbfronts and parking would be placed under the aircraft parking. The concept being that passengers, in the most car-centric city in the United States, would be able to park their cars directly under the aircraft they were going to take and take vertical circulation practically from the parking garage to the aircraft. The gates would be able to accept widebody, narrowbody or supersonic transports. This configuration would allow the airport to maximize the airfield, ensuring more space for aircraft movement or parking, literally burying the passenger processing problem. A change in how airport security was handled would radically end concepts that enabled direct car to plane transfers. A spate of aircraft hijackings in the 60s and early 70s led the FAA on January 5, 1973 to mandate security checks on every passenger with metal detectors and x-ray machines for carry-on bags. This meant that the flow of passengers in a terminal had to separated between screened and un-screened passengers. Many terminal plans either had to be completely revised or were invalidated altogether. Should the concept of parking cars under the aircraft apron make an appearance today, it would also face the heightened security rules imposed after 9/11 requiring safety buffers from public vehicle parking, terminals, and aircraft.

It was also during this period, in the late 60s and early 70s that supersonic transport (SST) aircraft were promised to be the next evolutionary step in commercial air service. Planning for terminals included SSTs in their design, though the only US airport that saw sustained limited SST service with the Concorde was New York JFK.

West Terminal

Only a few years after the opening of the Central Terminal Area (CTA), planners started looking at how to meet growing passenger demand. When the CTA was inaugurated, airlines were still transitioning from smaller propeller driven aircraft to aircraft such as the Boeing 707 or Douglas DC-8 carrying approximately 190 passengers.

On the horizon were newer, larger aircraft that could carry more than double the passengers and fly further to new non-stop destinations. LAX was outgrowing the terminals it had just inaugurated six years earlier. The crosswind runway was not needed as the orientation of the East-West runways provided enough coverage to span most wind conditions. By removing the cross wind runway, the area to the west of Terminals 3 and 4 could be redeveloped into a purpose built terminal for large intercontinental aircraft.

In 1973, the First Oil Crisis occurred and in spite of advanced plans for a West Terminal, planning was put on hold as passenger numbers stagnated. New mandates for security screening of passengers also altered how the terminal could function. Planning for a West Terminal would resume at the end of the 70s as Los Angeles was awarded the 1984 Summer Olympics. Not building a West Terminal was no longer an option, and in 1984, the Tom Bradley International Terminal was inaugurated with a completely different layout than the original West Terminal concept.

Terminal 1

While Terminal 1 (T1) was planned in the Master Plan, it was not built as part of the original 1961 Central Terminal Area. In between 1961 and 1984, when T1 opened in its existing configuration, many studies were undertaken to evaluate what T1 could look like.

Since 1941, Garrett  AiResearch, a manufacturer of turbochargers and turboprop engines had a manufacturing facility at the corner of Sepulveda and Century Boulevards, immediately to the east of future T1. Starting in the 70s, plans for a new T1 started to include the Garrett factory land. By that time, most industrial manufacturing activity at LAX had moved to other locations, and it was assumed that the land could be acquired. However, the Garrett facility remained in place until after T1 was built. It was then converted into Park One, a privately-owned airport parking operator. It was only in July 2009, that LAWA purchased the 20 acres formerly known as the Garrett factory and earmarked it for future terminal development.

Planning for T1 in the early 70s focused on retaining the satellite concourse concept but with a new linear satellite concourse, instead of the existing ovoid layouts. The long linear satellites would span from Terminal 2 to Sepulveda Boulevard, including the Garrett land and provide between twenty and thirty gates. Early concepts placed most terminal processing functions such as check-in, security, bag-claim, concessions and hold-rooms under the aircraft apron. Even the airport roadways, curbfronts and parking would be placed under the aircraft parking. Passengers once ready to board would alight with vertical circulation to above ground gatehouses to board the aircraft. The gates would be able to accept widebody, narrowbody or SSTs. This configuration would allow the airport to maximize the airfield, ensuring more space for aircraft movement or parking, while allowing passengers to have a very short distance from car to plane.

Eventually, the underground terminal concept was dropped in favor of the conventional processor concept, connected to the satellite via an underground walkway. When it became apparent that Garrett, now Allied Signal was not going to divest the property, a truncated version of the satellite was proposed. With a shortened satellite, and above ground terminal facilities, many space saving and gating efficiencies were lost. Planning for a new T1 focused around a conventional pier terminal configuration that included less risk as the 1984 Olympics were rapidly approaching.

Seadrome

There have been multiple proposals to build an airport either on artificial islands or in this case a platform built miles from the Los Angeles coast. The Los Angeles Department of Airports did approve this study for $15,000 but never went past this slide deck.

As seen in the images below, the “Seadrome” airport was a mix of large-hub airport with an aircraft carrier mode of operation, with four parallel runways, the same as LAX. Passengers would reach the airport by large commuter helicopters from any one of the outstations located around the LA area to the Seadrome and board a flight.

2004 Master Plan

The 2004 Master Plan is the latest Master Plan on record at LAX. Conditionally approved by the FAA in 2004, it was contentious with some neighboring residents engaging in litigation with the city.

Ultimately a settlement was reached and certain projects identified in the Master Plan moved forward. Some of these improvements have since been implemented:

  • New Maintenance Facility
  • South Runway Relocation and central taxiway construction
  • Midfield Satellite Concourse (West Gates at TBIT)

More improvements are being implemented almost two decades later to accommodate the 2028 Summer Olympics including:

  • Terminal improvements
  • Automated People Mover
  • Ground Transportation Center
  • Consolidated Rental Car Facility

Many aspects of the 2004 Master Plan will not be implemented, either due to the change in how the airport operates, changes in the business climate or obsolescence of the plans themselves.

Epilogue

“Airport Planning is the art of working on projects that will never see the light of day.” While perhaps an exaggeration of how airport planners feel on most days, many projects do get built.

Master Planning starts with setting goals and objectives. What are the challenges and issues that the airport will be facing over the planning horizon, over the next fifteen to twenty years. What can the Airport do to meet those challenges and issues.

The planning team will propose a variation of alternatives to meet the goals and objectives. These alternatives are formulated with the experience gained from other Master Plans and planning studies.

The length of a project from planning to ground breaking to opening can be as short as a few years. Most will take much longer, due to economic or financing issues, political opposition or major events that may shift passenger travel trends.

The concept of a West Terminal was envisioned as early as the 60s when the Central Terminal Area first opened, and formally planned in the early 70s. It wasn’t until 1984 that the Tom Bradley International Terminal opened and 2013 when the new TBIT concourse opened.

LAWA eventually acquired the land where Garrett manufactured turbochargers, which had become Park One, a private parking lot. Plans have been approved to expand Terminal 1, replacing the lot as was planned in the 70s, albeit in a different terminal configuration.

However, projects that were planned decades in the past, may see a second (or third or fourth) life. Usually not in the original form and certainly not within the original time frame. These plans can make a come back meeting the original goals and objectives that may not have changed over time. The broad concepts of the original plans can often be seen as guides for the final design and ultimate utility.

1953 Master Plan 2013 New TBIT Concourse

Use the slider to compare the views between the original glass dome concept from the Pereira & Luckman 1953 Master Plan (left) and the Great Hall by Fentress Architects in the new TBIT Concourse (right)

1972 West Terminal Plan Tom Bradley International Terminal 2013

Use the slider to compare the views between the 1972 West Terminal Concept and TBIT (1984) the 2013 Concourse (right)

The Terminal 1 expansion (also known as Concourse 0) approved as one of the terminal projects to be implemented for the 2028 Summer Olympics. The facility is built where the Garrett Turbocharger factory used to be.

Jean-Christophe Dick

Jean-Christophe has over 15 years experience as Airport Planner, currently at ESA, and has been on the Board of the Flight Path Museum since 2017. He is currently serving as the Museum Vice-President, Airport Historian and Technology Chair. He is also a pilot and award-winning photographer.