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  • ROUTES: LAX gearing up to accommodate big jets and new routes

ROUTES: LAX gearing up to accommodate big jets and new routes

Visiting LA? You'll love the beaches and you won't want to miss Disneyland. While in town, walk with the stars in Hollywood and enjoy the great shopping. Travelling for business? By any measure, LA - that nexus of the world entertainment industry - is one of a dozen or so global mega-hubs, the great and growing centres of commerce and culture whose momentum is driving the 21st century.

In any case, LA by air is awe-inspiring. Whether arriving over the sea from the west or over a sea of lights by night from the east, one of the world's unforgettable travel experiences is the approach to the enigmatically named LAX (there's no significance to the X, which was added to LA when airport designations were standardised at three letters).

So, who doesn't want LA on their route network? Or, to put the question back to Los Angeles World Airports, the City of Los Angeles-owned airport operator, how hard can it be to sell LAX as a destination?

Surprisingly, the answer is "hard enough".

What any LAX passenger knows all too well is that on the ground, the LAX experience is challenging, often with chaotic check-in, very long queues at passport control, and overcrowded baggage claim and customs areas in too-small terminals that show their age.

For airlines, too few gates can mean complicated ground handling and secondary moves to remote parking when departure schedules don't call for a quick turnaround. More recently, there has been the matter of Airbus A380-compatible gates, as this West Coast gateway is an obvious destination for A380 traffic from Asia. Qantas opened LA's superjumbo era, and Singapore Airlines, Air France and Korean Air have followed, but they operate from just four gates: two attached to the main Tom Bradley International Terminal complex and two remote.

The root of all these problems, readily admitted by LAWA external affairs director and head of air services marketing Celine Cordero, is the fact that nothing of substance has been done to improve the facilities since the Bradley terminal opened in 1984. That development, inspired by the realisation that an airport upgraded piecemeal during the 1970s was not up to the task of welcoming the Olympic Games, was good, if not excellent, for its time. But times have changed and LAX - for reasons relating to budgets and local politics that would be familiar to an operator of any airport wedged into a dense urban area - has not.

However, the advent of so-called Group 6 aircraft such as the A380, Boeing 787-8 and biggest 777s has spurred action, resulting in what LAWA claims to be the biggest construction project in Los Angeles: a $4.1 billion modernisation scheme that will add 18 new gates - including nine dedicated to Group 6 aircraft - along the western edge of the existing Bradley terminal complex. The project is doubling concourse space and also involves improvements to the power and other systems as well as, critically, a widened taxiway running between the North and South runway pairs.

And, with 80 new customs counters and an automated baggage handling and inspection system, this "Bradley West" facility should cope with 4,000 passengers an hour.

The first of these new gates will have opened as delegates gather for World Routes, so Sonjia Murray, a consultant working with Cordero, is understandably excited about making an impact in Dubai. The remaining 18 Bradley West gates will open during 2013.

By its own reckoning, LAX is the sixth-busiest airport in the world and third in the USA, offering more than 600 daily flights to 91 domestic cities and more than 1,000 weekly nonstop flights to 56 cities in 32 countries on nearly 75 air carriers. But while it served more than 61 million passengers in 2011, it remains far from its peak of more than 67 million in 2000, and aircraft movements (604,000 in 2011) are also way down on that peak year (738,000).

The plan now, backed by Bradley West - and, possibly, future improvements to the North airfield runway layout, to better accommodate Group 6 aircraft movements - is to get LAX better connected. As Murray puts it, there are some notable gaps in the LAX system: India is "a big hole", as is Scandinavia; Eastern Europe is a gap; and remarkably, says Murray, South America is less well connected to LAX than it was a decade ago - Argentina is notably ill-served. She hopes Emirates will not have to wait much longer for company from its Gulf rivals. She would also like to link to Vietnam, and secondary Chinese cities are another sales target.

Industry consultant George Hamlin, a former TWA financial analyst and Airbus North America strategic planning director, reckons improved A380 capacity will be a "huge boost" for LAX. He stresses that what matters to airlines when it comes to "destination appeal" are seats and price - and getting more big aircraft into the airport means more passengers, which drives down prices and helps carriers bring in more people.

The new ground facilities at LAX, he adds, will probably enable the airport to cope with 15 or more extra flights daily to new destinations. The politically thorny issue of changing the runway layout is less important than fixing the on-ground passenger interface issues that have characterised the airport.

Aviation consultant and former British Airways executive John Strickland says a key test of the Bradley West development will be whether or not it improves airlines' operational reliability, for example by helping ensure that passengers get to the gates on time; pleasant passenger facilities count for little as far as airlines are concerned.

He also adds that for any airport the real key to selling itself as a destination is to make sure it knows its own market intimately. What businesses are visitors from which origins actually coming to meet with? To which destinations do local communities have family links? Which local leisure attractions appeal to passengers from a particular airline's home market?

In other words, says Strickland, an airport has to be able to show that, as a destination, it has the appeal to pull people onto an aircraft.

From that perspective, LAX is selling Los Angeles, not LAX. Murray and Cordero say they recognise this, and work closely with LA tourist and business development officials.

Murray also recognises that selling LAX as a destination is a non-stop effort. There are rival gateways - San Francisco, for one - and modern aircraft coming from Asia have the range to overfly the West Coast. "We recognise that we have a strong prominence as LAX," she says. "But we don't take it for granted."

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