LAX: From hellhole to a pleasant experience

28 03 2016

I haven’t been through Los Angeles Airport (LAX) for several years — where possible, I’ve avoided it since Qantas started flying direct from Sydney to Dallas. But this trip it was unavoidable because the conference I’m attending is in Portland, Oregon.

To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. LAX has gone from being a hellhole to be avoided at all costs to something closely resembling a pleasant experience (assuming that ANY airport experience can be pleasant).

Arrival: Before

It started with the arrival. Previously, you had to walk forever down dark soulless corridors to get to immigration and customs in the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT). Then if you weren’t a US citizen, you had to go to the ‘Aliens’ line and queue for many minutes (the longest I’ve waited was more than 90 minutes) in hot conditions, and be herded by less-than-polite security and crowd control personnel. Eventually you’d get to the front of the line, where a sullen-faced person would process you — take all your fingerprints (not even the Australian government has my fingerprints!), take a photo, look you up and down several times, question why you were coming into the US, and eventually stamp your passport or a slip of green paper to put into your passport.

After that, you had to find your baggage carousel and jostle with hundreds of others for your luggage (no different to any other airport) and then join a very long line to go through customs and answer more questions. Once that was done, you could exit to the arrivals hall and then out into the street to find your transport to wherever you were going, or, if you were connecting to another flight, you went a different way to drop off your luggage and then had to walk outside and to the terminal for your next flight (yes, I know there were airside shuttles, but they were hard to find and weren’t as quick as walking!). Once you were outside, you could be accosted by hawkers trying to sell you stuff or help you with your bags (for a ransom, no doubt). If you were connecting, you had to get to your next terminal via the dodgy pavement, and then go through security in that terminal to get to your gate. As far as I’m aware, if you were connecting to another flight in several hours’ time, you couldn’t go back into the international terminal and your airline’s lounge (Qantas for me) and hang there until close to the time of your next flight.

And you always had to allow at least an hour for this arrivals process — and there were no toilets from leaving the plane until after you’d left the baggage claim area and customs.

Arrival: After

The new arrivals corridors at TBIT are light, airy, surrounded by glass and go over the top of the main concourse below. And I’m pretty sure I saw signs for toilets along the way. When you get to the air-conditioned immigration area, you can go into the US citizens line or the ‘Visitors’ line (we’re no longer aliens!); however, there’s also an ESTA line, which is NOT clearly marked, for those who have an ESTA and are on the same passport they’ve used to enter the USA in the previous two years. This line takes you to the electronic scanners — two of the scanners wouldn’t ‘read’ my name correctly and one of the staff had to help me on the third scanner (that was frustrating but not as frustrating as waiting in line in the heat for hours). Once your receipt is printed, you bypass the other lines and go to an immigration officer who does a very quick final scrutiny that you are the same person as the receipt and passport say you are, and that’s it. All over in a matter of minutes. That said, LAX could learn a lot from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport who have this down to a fine art — they use colour-coded lane dividers and signs to direct people to the correct lane; at LAX, all the lanes and signs are the same colour and you can’t easily find where you have to go if you have an ESTA.

Once immigration is done, you collect your baggage and head towards the exits. There’s a final check of your receipt (I think — can’t remember), and then you’re headed towards either the exit to the arrivals hall or to the baggage drop for your connecting flight. It was at this point that the quick process up until now was held up. The corridor leading to the connecting flight bag drop was filled with people — about 6 people across and as far as the eye could see. However, the line kept moving, although it was slow.

All up, I estimate it took about 20 to 30 mins from getting off the plane to heading to the exits.

Once your bags are dropped you now have a couple of choices — you can either do as you’ve always done and head out to the street and walk to your next terminal (or catch a shuttle), or you can head back into TBIT, go upstairs to departures and go through TSA security there, and then make your way to your other terminal (Terminals 4 to 8 only) via the airside (i.e. after security) walkways. If you have plenty of time between connections AND you’re a Qantas Club member, you can now go back to the Qantas Business Lounge or Qantas First Class Lounge (yes, two separate lounges now at LAX! And both are HUGE compared to what they were) and have a shower, have a bite to eat, a drink, relax etc. until you need to get to your next flight (Note: Your next flight will NOT be called if it’s from another terminal!!).

When you’re ready to go to Terminal 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 leave the Qantas lounge and turn left — at the end of the corridor is the above-ground walkway to Terminal 4. It takes maybe 10 minutes to walk to your gate in T4. If you need to go to T5 or T6, go to Gate 44 in T4 first, then down two escalators and follow the signs — this connection is underground. It takes about another 10 minutes to walk from T4 to T6, so make sure you allow enough time to get from TBIT to your terminal. I didn’t know where to go or how long it would take, so I allowed a good hour before boarding time to get to T6. There are also upper level connections between Terminals 6 and 8. See here for a map and the gates where you access the connectors: http://www.laxishappening.com/assets/pdf/LAX-CTA-South-Tunnel-Map.pdf

NOTE: If you are a Qantas Club member (not just a frequent flyer), you can usually get into another OneWorld partner airline lounge by showing your card (Admirals Club for American Airlines; Boardroom for Alaska Airlines). Be aware that these domestic lounges are NOTHING like the Qantas lounges — food will be limited, drinks aren’t free, and there are no shower facilities. There’s also limited space, so you’ll likely be squashed in with a heap of other people.

As I have to go through LAX on my way home, I’ll update this blog post later about the process in reverse. With luck, I’ll just clear TSA in Portland and not have to deal with any more security lines after that!

Update: Yes! I only had to clear TSA in Portland!! Once I arrived at T6 at LAX, I stayed airside and connected via the underground and above-ground walkways to TBIT. No more security checks!


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