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LAX Explained: Your Guide To Navigating The West Coast’s Most Infuriating Airport
We all know LAX is a necessary evil, but can that ever change? Here’s your guide to the airport’s hacks, history and future.
An illustration of a man's face, biting his fingers as he screams, with the letters LAX inside his mouth
LAX is not for the faint-hearted
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)
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If seeing “Los Angeles International Airport” fills you with anxiety, it’s mutual. But as frustrating as LAX is, it’s an airport that, as an Angeleno, you’re probably going to use at some point in your life.

And it's not just locals who must face this particular airport experience. Pre-COVID, LAX was the third busiest airport in the world (it’s now fifth). That makes the experience a rabbit hole of stress, traffic and lost luggage. Listen, I wish we could call it a day and fly through Burbank or Long Beach, but if you’re not going through a powerhouse like LAX, flying is (usually) more expensive.

How on earth (or in the sky) did we get here? Let’s dig into what makes LAX the way it is and how best to experience it.

A Brief LAX History Lesson

An old black and white photo of a planes sitting in a barren field. There's a person standing next to it.
People examine a plane powered by a Wright J-5 engine at Mines Field in Westchester during the 1928 National Air Races.
(Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library digital collection)

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Early Air Travel’s Growing Pains

LAX didn’t become an infuriating destination overnight. With millions of dollars, what’s now known as Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) slowly developed the land over decades.

Back in 1837, when California (known then as Alta California) was under Mexican rule, the governor gave a huge area of land to a ranchero named Antonio Ygnacio Avila. That swath became Rancho Sausal Redondo. It included today’s LAX, Playa del Rey — and yes, Redondo Beach. Those grounds have been almost everything you’d imagine in old L.A.: a ranch, grazing area, lima bean farmland — you name it.

[Jump to: How to hack LAX travel like a pro]

The area’s soaring potential became evident in the late 1800s. While the Wright brothers achieved the first powered human-led flight in 1903, there were some attempts at flying already happening around the world. In the years around 1889, the flat farmland attracted pilots to practice informally near today’s Imperial and Aviation Boulevard, according to Los Angeles World Airports documents.

A few decades later, it was on its way to becoming a fully-fledged airfield. It was named Mines Field at the time (a tribute to William W. Mines, a real estate agent). When Mines orchestrated the 1928 National Air Races, L.A. government officials saw the grounds as a perfect place to tap into the growing aviation industry.

A black and white photo of an overview of the dedication. There are crowds of people on the ground as planes fly by. A building is to the right.
Crowds of people attend the dedication of the Los Angeles municipal airport in 1930.
(Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library digital collection)

Enter the Los Angeles Municipal Airport at Mines Field. Back then, there wasn’t even an office building. Most employees traveled to City Hall to work, records show. (The few who worked on-site did so out of a shed.)

Those early flights were private and took off from dirt airstrips — but the city had big ambitions. L.A. purchased the airfield outright in 1937 and voters backed a $12.5 million bond (the equivalent of about $195.8 million in 2022) for expansion eight years later.

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But the big dogs of commercial flying were still tied to Burbank’s airport, which had opened in 1930. L.A. enviously stood by as its rival, Lockheed Air Terminal, raked in the cash — public air travel at that point was a luxurious money-maker (sorry, no Spirit Airlines yet). That changed when Burbank manufactured fighter planes during World War II, chipping away at airliners’ ability to expand their services. Most public carriers defected to L.A.’s growing airport in 1946.

With the jet age boom in the ‘60s, air travel nearly tripled. More money flowed into the airport to accommodate jet airliners. A control tower was built and runways were extended, but a key need was to build more room for passengers. Terminals 7 and 8 were the first “jet age” buildings at LAX in June 1961. Terminals 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 began service later that year.

Ahead of the Olympic games in 1984, development was in full swing. The double-decker roadway was built and more than 1 million square feet of terminal space was added. Terminal 1 and the Tom Bradley International Terminal (named after Mayor Tom Bradley) were completed just in time for the summer games.

Surfridge: LA’s Lost Neighborhood

If you’ve ever driven by Dockweiler Beach along Vista del Mar, you might have noticed an area of land that’s fenced off and desolate.

Surprise: It’s a government-made ghost town. When LAX expanded into jet travel, the seaside community of Surfridge had a front-row seat. The neighborhood was “an isolated playground of the wealthy” on the coastline, according to the L.A. Times.

Noise was always present in that neighborhood because of the airport, but the arrival of jets made the roaring sounds more of a problem. Residents complained and urged the city to reduce noise pollution.

Those calls were answered with the use of eminent domain. L.A. officials excised Surfridge from the map. They forcefully bought and tore down residents’ homes in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, rather than let the buildings become dilapidated.

It’s an eerily similar past to what happened in the neighborhoods at Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine, but a striking difference is that the community wasn’t replaced with new, modern structures.

Instead, what remains of Surfridge are cracked-up roads, barren land and chain-link fences.

Wait, How Did LAX Get Its Name?

Did you know?

OK, we totally don’t call it “Los Angeles Airport” or “Mines Field” anymore. Why?

Well, the airport had a bit of an identity crisis.

When the Civil Aeronautics Administration gave the airport a shiny new “international” rating in 1949, the City Council capitalized on that by changing the airport’s name from “Los Angeles Airport” to “Los Angeles International Airport.”

The induction of “LAX” came when airport identifier codes had to expand. Two-letter codes were usually tied to a city, but as more airports sprung up, the codes went up to three letters. So in our case, “LA” became “LAX” in 1947.

That “X” doesn’t have any special meaning. (If anyone knows why “X” was chosen, though, we’d love to know!)

What’s That Quirky UFO Building In The Center?

A circular shaped floor surrounded by windows is elevated by crossing arches above the structure
That strange building at LAX is not, in fact, a spaceship.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)

The Theme Building — that futuristic structure in the middle of LAX — is kind of like Area 51. It exists, but rumors tend to cloud public understanding. So… is it a command center? A restaurant? A giant spider covered in concrete?

One of those is (sort of) right.

The Theme Building was constructed in 1961 by the Pereira and Luckman architectural firm. Some people thought it had a rotating floor, but that legend wasn’t true.

What is true is that the building once housed an eatery called Encounter Restaurant, which was open for 16 years before shutting down in December 2013. The dine-in spot was known for its wacky restroom mirrors, lava lamps and spacious views over the airport.

The building follows Googie architecture, that mid-century modern style that’s heavily influenced by the space age and geometrical shapes. [Note: Paul Revere Williams, a Black architect known for his influence on design in L.A. worked on this building.] Basically, it’s the Jetsons IRL and L.A. has a lot of buildings inspired by it.

The landmark’s observation deck and glass upper floor are still unused, but the Theme Building does host the Bob Hope USO and LAX Guest Services Division.

LAX Today (And What's Next)

The Airport's Design Is Still A Big Deal

All it takes is one drive to see how design is still a big part of LAX. (The Theme Building isn’t the only lavish display.)

When upgrades to the Tom Bradley International Terminal finished last year, designers gave it a “flowing roofline” to echo LAX's neighbor: the Pacific Ocean. Look closely from above and you'll notice a curved aluminum roof that seems like a wave.

The airport grounds are full of outdoor art, too. The large LAX sign and seemingly giant color-changing glow sticks at night are local icons that stem from the city's LAX Gateway Beautification Project.

Artist Paul Tzanetopoulos created the installation in 2000, which aimed to be a “welcoming gesture to guests.” The kinetic lights — a group of 26 large-scale glass pillars — stretch from Century Boulevard into the airport, with a focal point at the 32-feet-high illuminated LAX sign.

These hefty structures are just a few of the many ways LAX brings art into the airport.

Why Is LAX Almost Always Under Construction?

Illustrated orange construction cranes loom over airport parking and terminals in gray
Construction projects at LAX seem never-ending. At the very least they will be with us until 2027.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)

And, an even better question: Will it ever be over? Development at the airport behemoth is (seemingly) never-ending.

The airport is in the midst of a $14 billion capital investment program that’s aimed at modernization (no doubt with the Olympics in mind in 2028). They may not be overly exciting, but over the past few years a police facility and an economy parking structure have been built and multiple terminals have been redesigned.

Here’s construction to look out for in the near future (which may also impact your travel time):

  • Terminal Vertical Cores: Sounds vaguely sci-fi, but in short, the project will install new front doors in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, between Terminal 5.5, and Terminal 7. It should be finished by the fall of this year.
  • Consolidated Rent-A-Car (ConRAC): A new rent-a-car facility is being built by the 405 freeway. It’s expected to open by next year and aims to bring all rental services under one roof, which sounds like a grand idea.
  • Automated People Mover: LAWA plans to finish the Automated People Mover (APM) by next year — the 2.25-mile elevated train track designed to connect passengers to different terminals. It will also connect with ConRAC, the Metro Crenshaw/LAX line and economy parking. You can see much of it there already, threading between buildings and the freeway. Nine trains will carry up to 200 passengers each. It will be free and run nonstop at two-minute intervals.
  • Terminals 4, 5 and 6: Expect construction here for a while (cue the deep groans). The terminals are being redesigned to make a central location for things like ticketing, screening and baggage claim, and to improve gate areas. Parts of these projects should be finished by 2023 and 2027.

That’s the construction that’s in the works right now. But there’s more coming up, as federal money fuels additional construction.
Earlier this month LAX was awarded a $50 million infrastructure grant to repave terminal roadways and reconfigure the airport’s entrance to alleviate traffic congestion. LAWA plans to use the money to build about eight miles of roads leading to and within the airport. There’s also an incoming gate complex called the Midfield Satellite Concourse, commercial development on the northside and more terminal and airfield upgrades.

Airport officials say all these updates will “dramatically change” how you experience the airport — but let’s be real. If there’s always some project in the works, will we ever get to enjoy the final product? And will a new LAX gateway really relieve our airport stress?

Some Aircraft Fly Pretty Close To Traffic. How Is That Legal?

An illustrated figure looks alarmed as a jet flies closely overhead.
Since LAX is right in the middle of a busy city, nearby residents (or car drivers) usually get a real close look at incoming and departing planes.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)

When you’re driving near the airport, you may sometimes have the instinct to duck down in your car to avoid a close encounter with a jet taking off.

It’s great if you’re a thrill seeker, but not if you’re of a nervous disposition. But what gives? Well, it depends on where you are and what type of aircraft you’re seeing.

In general, the Federal Aviation Administration only allows aircraft to fly below minimum altitudes in congested areas when it’s necessary for takeoff or landing. Since LAX is right in the middle of a busy city, nearby residents (or car drivers) usually get a real close look at incoming and departing planes.

(Fun fact: from midnight to 6:30 a.m., all pilots usually land and take off by flying west over the ocean regardless of destination to reduce city noise. Sorry, Playa del Rey.)

But there’s another close call you might notice. When pilots follow visual flight rules — which are used when there’s minimum visibility to physically see where an aircraft is going — LAX has a special, federally-regulated area that allows them to fly above the airport at lower elevations.

When a pilot is going northwest over LAX, they’re allowed to fly at 4,500 feet above sea level. If they’re flying southeast, they can cross at 3,500 feet. That’s roughly three Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. One caveat? Jets — meaning most commercial airliners — aren’t allowed to do this.

How To Hack LAX Travel Like A Pro

Cars and buses crowd both levels of LAX airport roads.
Yes, this is, in fact, misery. Traffic lined up outside the international terminal at LAX during Christmas week 2021.
(Mario Tama
/
Getty Images)

If you’re looking for a practical guide to traveling at LAX, this is the section for you. We asked LAist readers to let us know their hacks for getting around. Here’s what you recommended.

[If you skipped ahead, don't miss: Why is LAX almost always under construction]

Planning Your Commute For Pickup And Drop-off

Give yourself plenty of time before your flight when you’re going to LAX. For international flights, get there at least three hours early. Two hours is recommended for domestic travel.

Consider using the LAX FlyAway, says Kyle Becerra, who lives in the San Fernando Valley. “[It’s] definitely the move. It’s just so much easier and you even get to view the pretty L.A./California scenery on the way!”

The bus line makes round-trips to the airport from Van Nuys and Union Station every day of the week. It will save you money: One-way FlyAway tickets cost $9.75, and TAP cards can be used for a lower cost. Metrolink monthly pass holders ride for free from Union Station. (See FlyLAX for more information about shuttles and taxis. Check out the live FlyAway tracker, too.)

If you’re driving, get your parking in advance. Donna Schwartz Mills, who’s also from the San Fernando Valley, has learned from experience to use an offsite parking space. She reserves weeks or months ahead of time. Construction can knock out common parking locations, so never assume. (Pro-tip: LAX lets you pre-book online for cheaper (!) rates.)

“We actually missed a flight a few years ago because we did not realize the construction had taken so many economy lot spaces out. We drove around the airport for over an hour before we found a lot that wasn't full,” Schwartz Mills said.

Traveling with a disability? Access Paratransit can get you to LAX. For anyone eligible to use this service, Access will take you to the airport for 21 days out of a 12-month period. If you’re outside of L.A. County, you can get complimentary service. (See FlyLAX for more ADA services — including courtesy shuttles inside.)

The LAX entrance with a sign that shows three different routes to drive. One goes to the arrivals floor, another to departing, and the last to Sepulveda Boulevard. In the back are the plyons and big LAX sign.
The entrance to Los Angeles International Airport on April 16, 2020, in Los Angeles.
(Valerie Macon
/
AFP via Getty Images)

If traffic is unbearable, consider using another floor. LAX has two levels: The top for departures and the bottom for arrivals. Rideshare drivers have to drop off on the top level, so it can get congested very fast. If you go below, you’ll have to go upstairs using the escalators.

Stay flexible about dropping off at less crowded terminals. In most cases, where you need to go is also where hundreds of Angelenos are headed. If you have to stay topside, remember you can always be dropped off at a less congested terminal and walk the rest of the way. (LAX posts live traffic times.)

Try alternate routes. Saeed Jaffer of Pasadena said if you’re “approaching via 105, sometimes using alternate off-ramps is necessary. If the Sepulveda tunnel is backed up: [Try] Nash Street or sometimes even La Cienega Boulevard. [The] 96th Street/Vicksburg Street entrance to the horseshoe can often be a better entrance.”

When in doubt, ditch the car. If your load is light, you can bike into LAX and lock it up in one of the central terminal area’s parking garages for free. That’s a real insider’s tip — it comes from Ian Dutton, an airline pilot from Santa Monica, who uses this mode of transport himself. He recommends parking it “out of the way” of traffic. In his experience, bike theft isn’t common because it’s in a security-monitored garage.

If you’re taking rideshare, know how the process works. As a former Uber driver myself, I can tell you how I spent hours looking for passengers. The process evolves often, so do your driver a favor and get familiar with the pickup and drop-off rules — LAX police won’t hesitate to issue a ticket!

Ways To Get Through TSA Quickly

TSA PreCheck will save you time. This is a program for participating airlines. The screening lines for travelers with TSA PreCheck are considerably shorter, so it can help you avoid stress. The application costs $85 for five years.

Try LAX Fast Lane. This airport pilot program has limited hours for passengers flying out of Terminals 7 and 8. It’s free for everyone. Reservations and walk-in appointments are available daily from 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the TSA checkpoint for Terminal 7. Ideally, you should sign up three days in advance.

Consider using CLEAR. This technology, which fully expanded to LAX in 2021, uses your eyes or fingerprints to confirm who you are. The cost starts at $15 a month that’s billed annually. Once confirmed, an employee escorts you to the front for a physical screening.

Parents, TSA-prep your children’s food. Stefanie Ritoper, our early childhood engagement producer, said “If you have tiny kids, bring many, many snacks for the line and the plane. It is the only way. Pack all baby food in a clear bag ... you're allowed to bring it through TSA, but they usually have to screen it separately.”

Screening prep! Make sure you can remove items quickly. Keep things like electronics accessible and be ready to slide those shoes and belts off. The TSA has a detailed list of what you can pack in a carry-on or checked luggage.

Where To Eat Near The Airport

There’s nothing worse than going to the airport on an empty stomach.

LAX has dozens of places to buy meals and snacks (you can even get delivery through AtYourGate), but at the same time, it can be very expensive. Seriously! Border Grill sells two tacos for nearly $20.

Instead of dropping the equivalent amount of another plane ticket on an overpriced meal, here are some delicious suggestions from LAist’s associate food editor Gab Chabrán. Try these spots before entering LAX — all within a 5 mile radius.

Aliki’s Greek Taverna: Aliki’s imports many of its ingredients from Greece. There’s a full lineup of foods like spanakopita (spinach pie), gyro plates and galaktoboureko (a custard dessert).

  • Address: 5862 Arbor Vitae Street, Los Angeles, CA 90045
  • Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen: This spot is a cafeteria-style eatery from the self-proclaimed “King of Soul Food,” Adolf Dulan.

  • Address: 202 East Manchester Boulevard, Inglewood, CA 90301
  • Hours: Every day from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Carnitas El Artista: This family-owned restaurant specializes in Michoacan-style carnitas.

  • Address: 510 North La Brea Avenue, Inglewood, CA 90302
  • Hours: Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday to Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Country Style Jamaican Restaurant: This spot offers a slice of Caribbean flavors with meals like oxtail, jerk chicken and curry goat.

  • Address: 630 North La Brea Avenue, Inglewood, CA 90302
  • Hours: Open every day (except Tuesday) from 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

In-N-Out: This slice of California royalty is a big draw for travelers. Beware of long drive-thru lines. Stay long enough and you’ll get to see a plane fly overhead!

  • Address: 9149 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90045
  • Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Friday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.

Pann’s Restaurant: If you’re into more Googie design and a “dreamburger,” Pann’s is the spot. The diner opened in 1958 and was recently in “Euphoria.”

  • Address: 6710 La Tijera Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90045
  • Hours: Every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The Proud Bird: This aviation-themed food hall is right outside LAX. It offers six cuisines and is home to Bludso’s BBQ ribs, brisket and pulled pork.

  • Address: 11022 Aviation Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90045
  • Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.\
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