Terminal velocity

What would excellent LAX wayfinding actually achieve?

LAX airport with its midcentury space-age Theme Building at the center and lots of construction for its people mover train
Construction on the people mover at LAX, which is never not making "big changes"

If you're tuned into the local megaevent-hosting beat, as I know you are, you might have seen a few headlines this week hinting that LAX is making "big changes" to prepare for the Olympics. It's true, and you probably know about some of them, like the new people mover that will take passengers to the K line. This week's news is that LAX is renaming its terminals ahead of 2028, and even the KTLA anchors trying to slog through the alphanumerical soup of new gate names seemed to have no idea why they were actually reporting on it. But the interesting thing here is that the terminal-renaming proposal is actually part of a new wayfinding contract. And before we draw up the new airport maps, let's spend a moment thinking about that: what would excellent LAX wayfinding actually achieve?

LAX has technically been going through "big changes" for at least two decades through seemingly endless waves of modernization projects, from refurbishing old terminals to planning completely new ones. As part of this expansion, LAX has also been cramming new gates into buildings you otherwise wouldn't even know existed. Last summer I flew out of a spacious, sun-bathed building named the Midfield Satellite Concourse North that was so far away from where I had gone through security I felt like I was being driven to Hermosa Beach. (They're currently building another one, Midfield Satellite Concourse South, to be finished by next year.) This is all to say: terminal renaming doesn't really affect you at all as a passenger; LAX is adding new gates and shuttle-busing flyers to remote concourses all the time. Only the most frequent LAX flyers could tell you which airlines are in which terminals, which can often change based on mergers or code-share realignment. So that part doesn't matter much at this point either. It's very likely to all get reorganized when one of these airlines cease to exist in the next four years. Hopefully it's not Delta, the premiere sponsor of LA28!

What really matters, wayfinding-wise, is the introduction of the people mover — the first time in LAX history we'll be getting people in and out of the airport without using the 1961-era horseshoe designed for cars. Numble, LA's most diligent transportation-document tracker, shared this week that the planned service date for the already-delayed people mover has been delayed once again to December 8, 2025. So maybe we'll be riding it in... 2026? That's the same year as the World Cup, when the airport will also see a large influx of visitors — and one year before the new LAX wayfinding project is supposed to be completed. So there are some critical questions that will need to be answered by this wayfinding project as it progresses. Like how can we start to use signage and maps to make non-car trips the most frictionless option? How do you prepare passengers for the people mover-to-K line experience before they land?

I was a little alarmed by this August 2023 report (again, thanks Numble) on LAX's proposed ground-transportation strategy after the people mover is operational. The plans are still extremely car-centric. Should private vehicles really be allowed to use the horseshoe anymore at all? Won't pickup traffic just be shifted a few blocks east to the end of the people mover? Why is there not more focus on making transit the most obvious choice? Just look at how the airport has poured resources into wayfinding for LAX-it — the temporary offsite lot for Lyft, Uber, and taxis that will operate for two years longer than planned by the time the people mover finally opens — without the same type of brand awareness directing people to the extremely cheap and convenient FlyAway airport shuttles.

Troublingly, in the same report, the FlyAway looks like it's being scuttled to an offsite lot after the people mover opens. The K line connection will be great for some travelers but the FlyAway's direct bus to Union Station will still be fastest for anyone going to and from downtown (which includes a lot of airport employees). LAX should continue to offer the most convenient curbside service for high-capacity transit like the FlyAway in order to incentivize the type of trips that can actually relieve congestion. One way to really sell the FlyAway would actually be through improved wayfinding: creating not only a more prominent and comfortable place to wait, but also having real-time arrival monitors at the curb and accurate data in corresponding apps. Imagine! YOU MIGHT FINALLY KNOW WHEN YOUR FLYAWAY IS COMING.

Once we get this sorted out we can turn our attention to the only LAX expansion news that matters — will there be an operating restaurant in the Theme Building at the airport's center by 2028? 🔥

✈️ Everything you need to know about LAX can be found in Nick Andert's 30-minute deep dive into LAX's expansion plans, plus a second video on LA's other airports. He also makes the most persuasive case for why the Sepulveda Pass needs a subway not a monorail

🛄 The City of Los Angeles Bureau of Infrastructure Inspections recently led a seven-mile walk through all LAX's nine terminals, which you couldn't do until last year when a walkway was completed connecting the remodeled Tom Bradley International Terminal to Terminal 3

🛬 LAX also saw "big changes" leading up to the last time we hosted the Olympics: double-decking the horseshoe, the original Tom Bradley International Terminal — which opened June 18, 1984, mere weeks before the games began — and inflatable (!) terminals. Some pretty awesome photos from LAX's Flight Path museum

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