It was my (mis)fortunate in my travels after the Feast of Tabernacles that I ended up in two airports that were engaged in ambitious building plans in order to become world-class airports in their own mind. The first case was Curaçao’s airport and the second is the airport from which I write this, LAX. The first case is the easier case to deal with because its aims in improving its airport were made explicitly clear, and include and improvement of passenger flow, which is one of the issues that the airport had, as well as a shortage of electronic plugs. Given that Curaçao’s airport includes a fair amount of walking in the blazing sun and exiting customs directly into a duty-free liquor store that customers must pass through on the way to connecting flights, it could stand to improve its flow for customers. That said, Curaçao’s airport is small enough that it is not really all that problematic. It is a small enough airport that even with its flow problems it is a quaint and occasionally lovely airport despite being on a scrubby island best known for its smuggling operations.
I am not inclined to be as merciful to LAX. Traveling through LAX, something I have done on numerous occasions , is without a doubt a miserable experience. The airport was not designed for ease of travel. Navigating customs and baggage claim requires a complicated set of travels up and down various escalators and through various lines and that is only the beginning of one’s sorrows, as one is dumped out of the building and then on a long hike to one’s connecting gate, which is less than ideal for those of us whose mobility is even slightly limited. Indeed, the rather inefficient passenger flow of the airport prompted some public complaints from a fellow traveler whose sentiments I wholeheartedly agreed with, as well as his skepticism from the employee at the airport that this is the way all airports are designed. This is, quite honestly, not the case.
One of the advantages of flying somewhat often through various airports and on various airlines is that one can compare the experience of traveling in different places and ways and being able to see through the self-serving rhetoric that “everyone does this” when everyone doesn’t. Some of the problems faced by LAX are fairly common to large airports. Travelers to LAX will face many similarities to travelers going through Houston or Dallas or Atlanta in terms of long lines and a bit of a hike between one’s arrival and customs. It is at least partly for this reason that I greatly prefer customs in smaller airports whenever this is possible. Once I was able to do customs in Memphis and it was a very enjoyable experience, in large part because Memphis was a cozy and comfortable airport that was pleasant to travel through. Given the unpleasant nature of traveling through many airports, when an airport is an enjoyable experience, that definitely draws my attention.
Not all of the problems faced by LAX are simply a result of its size. Some of them are the result of terrible design. Again, LAX makes its passengers travel through a slightly shorter version of the Communist Long March during the Chinese Civil War and expects to have its airport experience viewed as world-class, which is quite risible a claim. World class airports do not demand that travelers march miles through the bowels or on a circuitous route on the outside of an airport merely to go through multiple passport and security checks. That is just bad design. A comparison between LAX and other massive airports shows where LAX’s experience is lacking. New York’s Kennedy Airport at least has a somewhat efficient design that allows for quicker travel. Houston’s airport is massive but it manages to have friendly people. Atlanta has efficient people movers that allow people to move quickly from one terminal to another. LAX is not likely to massively redesign its airport for more efficiency, but there are other dispersed airports with multiple terminals that manage to do a way better job through people movers like Tampa and Pittsburgh than LAX manages with its demand that travelers making connections go on epic marches to do so, something some of us find rather frustrating and irritating.
Of course, no one asked my opinion about what makes an airport world-class. But many of the answers are rather obvious. World-class airports offer world-class service that gives customers and enjoyable experience and not a miserable one, and avoids making excuses for its poor design and customer flow. If an existing airport design makes it impossible for efficiency in ground plan, then there need to be ways to make travel easier for people who are going through the airport. It is only by serving the customer’s needs, which usually don’t include 5k walk/run events. Since LAX has stated its own ambitions in its construction, it is worthwhile to see what it thinks will gain it that status, which can be found here. There is one people mover project stated, but unfortunately the only internal corridor that works is between the international corridor and terminal four. Most of the proposed fixes and completed ones are cosmetic fixes that don’t really improve the experience of traveling at LAX but that cost a great deal of money. Count me in as skeptical. And of course, they just changed my gate as I write this. Way to go LAX in making an experience less enjoyable than it already was.
 See, for example: