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25th of May 2017

Automotive



Inside the Coordinated Chaos of History’s Most Ambitious Airport Move

It’s almost 1 am. LAX should be quiet, free of the stressed parents and harried business travelers who fill its terminals outside the small hours. Not tonight. Behind a row of windows illuminated by a purple glow, three men swing pickaxes into furniture. What looks like a performance art piece or a crime is in fact the hasty demolition of a Virgin America lounge.

The demolition crew represents a fraction of the hundreds of workers filling Los Angeles International Airport tonight for a once-in-a-lifetime logistics jigsaw puzzle. Other teams are pulling down signs, unplugging computers, and hauling away boxes of paper—and putting everything back in order on the other side of the airport.

Delta, you see, is moving house, leaving Terminals 5 and 6 for 2 and 3. Given Delta’s massive footprint here, 20 other airlines must relocate, too. “This is the largest relocation of its kind in US aviation history,” says Ranjan Goswami, Delta’s VP of sales for the western US. Fully 40 percent of the flights into and out of LAX are changing homes. Delta alone accommodates 30,000 passengers a day at LAX. Any slip in the tightly coordinated shuffle could trigger gridlock.

LAX is spending $14 billion over 15 years to transform its crusty, chaotic, and overcrowded self into a more pleasant and efficient transit hub. Delta gains some gates in its move (allowing extra flights), and in exchange will spend $1.9 billion to renovate and connect Terminals 2 and 3.

That’s all in the future. First, an army of planners, movers, engineers, electricians, customer service reps, and construction workers must execute the mega-move. It unfolds over the course of three nights—Friday, Sunday, and Tuesday—with a day’s pause between them to keep airport operations running seamlessly. Each night is a self-contained operation for roughly one-third of the gates being relocated. Further compounding the stress, every gate must be operational before 5 am, when the first flights touch down.

Game Time

The big dance started at about 11 pm Friday with the departure of the last red-eyes. Instead of the usual trickle of janitorial workers moving about, a flood of workers fresh from a safety briefing floods the terminal. They focused on Terminals 5 and 3, moving everything related to an airline: signs, desks, furniture, computers, you name it. They even took the keys and keycards (with locksmiths standing by the next morning in case any of the 3,000 locks caused trouble.)

The airlines, eager to head off issues, barraged customers with texts, calls, emails, push notifications, and signs alerting them to the terminal change. Anyone who didn’t get the message met at least one of the 200 guides, each wearing a neon green vest, ready to reroute them in shuttle vans.

As the action got going, a white panel van idled outside Terminal 3, next to a “No Stopping” sign. The workers inside were waiting for the last passengers to check in for the last red-eye before swooping in to remove every Virgin America sticker they see or cover it with the Delta red and blue. Everything was pre-measured and pre-cut, and the choreography ran smoothly. The crews followed the last passengers through the airport, rebranding gates once the the night’s last traveler board the night’s last plane. By 1 am, the process was humming along smoothly, with piles of sticky signs several inches high awaiting application at each gate.

The first flight, from Hawaii, was due in to Terminal 3 at 5 am Saturday. It tends to land early, so officials want things buttoned up no later than 4:45. That gave everyone less than six hours to turn things around.

Watching the process unfold was like watching the final minutes of a home-improvement TV show as the clock ticks down, and the tension ramps up before the big reveal. Builders erected up a 20-foot high wall (demarcating an area for a new bar and restaurant) so quickly they seemed to be working in time lapse mode. But there were no editors here to clean up mistakes: If someone blows a deadline, it triggers a cascade of chaos, as planes, people, and baggage in the wrong places foul up arrivals and departures for days, around LAX and beyond.

That first flight touched down just before 5 am, as expected. More than 100 local Delta employees cheered and waved lighted wands on the tarmac, welcoming it to its newly decorated home. The Hawaiian vacationers trudged off the plane, oblivious to the change, and life in the reshuffled airport returned to a new normal.

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