It's a Thursday evening, and the landing lights of incoming LAX flights glow like torches from Westchester to the San Gabriels. Torch one, 200 lives suspended in air. Torch two, 500. Torch three, 350 awaiting their return to loved ones, bosses, business meetings, auditions and, for many, the soul-saving comfort of their own pillows.
This high-wire act is more than just symbolic of the seventh-busiest airport in the world. It speaks to the risks involved, the importance of procedure, the crushing, timed-to-the-minute routine.
Perhaps no entity in the world juggles as many disciplines as a major airport: security, meteorology, technology, mixology, pipe-fitting, sharpshooting, sushi making and more.
But who runs LAX? Bill, the fire captain. Gary, the luggage supervisor. Max, a Belgian Malinois with a nose for bombs — imperfect strangers you hope know what they're doing, got enough sleep and can put your worries ahead of theirs.
On average, LAX handles almost 1,700 takeoffs and landings a day (even more during holidays), and firefighters will respond to at least one of them at full throttle — they make one to two emergency calls a day here — part of the largely invisible world of numbing protocol and screaming scramble that keeps an airport humming.
As passengers, we breeze through this place almost 61 million times a year, hoping/praying/trusting that the people behind the scenes know what they're doing. But a modern airport shouldn't be such a mystery. With that in mind, here's a glimpse at the people who make LAX go and the daily challenges they face:
The 'war room'
Open since December, the Airport Response Coordination Center, or ARCC, is the airport's central nervous system. Operators here control the stoplights outside the terminals to regulate vehicle flow. From here, an incident desk deploys plumbers to the flood in a restroom in Terminal 2 or a leaky water fountain in Terminal 3.
In a smaller room steps away, a police officer checks hundreds of surveillance cameras that monitor entrances, checkpoints and runways. Zooms in, zooms out, tilts down, pans left. What's he looking for? Anomalies. Anything that doesn't make sense in the normal flow of a gigantic airport.
Every ID swipe is tracked, any ajar door. Pull a defibrillator out of its box and an alarm rings here.
In an emergency, ARCC goes into war-room mode, and staff from the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, Airport Police and other agencies that run LAX move to an even tighter work space where they can work elbow to elbow and make decisions instantly from big-screen info they all share.
Where the units once operated independently in seven locations around the airport, they now work together at the ARCC, where an 8 a.m. meeting of the various agency reps kicks off each day.
Today, a Tuesday, LAX will see about 170,000 passengers, enough to fill a large stadium about twice over. A change in wind direction means the airport is on an "east traffic" flow, so planes are taking off to the east and landing from the west, opposite the norm.
Other than that, it seems to be a routine day, says Rodney Thompson, one of eight LAX duty managers employed by Los Angeles World Airports, the city department that runs the airport. Terminal 3 is being pressure washed. Fire sprinkler work will shut down parts of Terminals 5 and 6. An onramp to the 105 Freeway is closed — not under the airport's range of control, but a situation that will affect traffic flow.
Out on runway 24L, meanwhile, airport operations superintendent Michael Corlett calls the control tower for clearance, then speeds down the runway at 70 mph in a Crown Victoria, looking for debris or signs of runway deterioration, stopping quickly to pick up a stray 2-inch bolt on a taxi way.
The stultifying routine of a 24/7 operation, open every day of the year, and busier on holidays than any other time, is validated by such little discoveries as a 2-inch bolt that, in the wrong spot, could shred the tire of a 747 touching down at 200 mph.
A dog named Max
American Airlines employee Julio Ortiz is what the airline calls a "yada," sort of a concierge who works the Terminal 5 kiosk area, helping folks check in. Brandishing a hand-held computer, he can do just about anything someone at the ticket counter can do. The goal: to move people through the terminal and out to the concourses as quickly as possible.
That's good business, but it's also part of an overall security strategy. After 9/11, a RAND study on LAX called terminal areas prime targets for car and truck bombings. Staffing was increased, and self-help kiosks were added, all designed to speed the flow of passengers from the curb to the gate.
As you head to a TSA checkpoint, you might meet Max, a Belgian Malinois whose job is to detect explosives in luggage. Leave your bag unattended, then Max's snout will be there. Abandon your car at the curb for more than a minute, he or one of his canine colleagues, all TSA certified and tested annually, jump on that too.
Employed by the airport, not the LAPD, the Airport Police cover a 9-square-mile area around LAX, patrolling terminals, eyeing fences, stopping cars with expired tags, keeping vehicles moving. Their station is a mile from the terminals, and though officials won't say exactly how many officers are on patrol, the staff numbers in the low hundreds.
Even an officer's movements are monitored by undercover officers who make sure that Airport Police don't fall into routines — when they take their breaks or go on their rounds — that could be discerned by terrorists.
Augmented by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and Homeland Security, LAX is among the most heavily patrolled and relatively safe chunks of Los Angeles. Airport Police Officer Lance Schoenbaum says he spends more time helping travelers locate their vehicles in the parking garage than chasing bad guys.
"But you get everything here," he says, citing purse snatching, employee disputes, unlicensed cabs and heroin smuggling. Anything that happens on an aircraft is the FBI's responsibility, but the Airport Police usually respond first.
As police states go, the airport may not be especially menacing. But make no mistake: LAX is definitely a police state.
Passing through security
Airline security begins the moment you make your reservation and your name is checked against a TSA list. But the heavy scrutiny is done at the TSA checkpoint, staffed by shifts of 45-60 workers, where you are asked to remove your shoes, empty your pockets and put your carry-on items in plastic bins on a conveyor belt that takes them to be scanned.
The chatty TSA screener who initially checks your boarding pass? He's sweeping an ultraviolet light over your ID to be sure it's valid. He also may be trying to engage you in conversation as a way to detect any telltale nervousness or psychological issues.
"We had a big push for customer service, because customer service is a layer of security," says Ivan Cikos, TSA screening manager for Terminals 1, 2 and 3.
To ward off the side effects of too much routine, screeners are rotated every 30 minutes among the various checkpoint tasks — X-ray monitoring, conveyor-belt duty. Screeners also are tested every day by a "plant," who attempts to subvert screening procedures. Those who fail the covert tests typically receive remedial training, and such failures are taken into account during annual recertification.
The new full-body scanning machines are the result of those plants, says TSA spokesman Nico Melendez. Tests found too many prohibited items going undetected, he says, so late last year, 22 of the machines were installed in about half the airport.
For several years, LAX has also used specially trained "behavioral detection officers," who keep an eye out for unusual conduct.
Always a work in progress
Terminal 6 is a mess right now, more like an experience in a developing country.
Eventually, it will be the province of Alaska Airlines, but until renovation is complete later this year, this maze-like area of power tools and open ceilings is what you'll deal with.
It's a lesson in the various frustrations of this place. As airports go, LAX, which entered the jet age in 1961, is an antiquity. From taxi ways to terminals, it's all squeezed into one of the smallest footprints of any major U.S. airport: 3,425 acres compared to Dallas-Ft. Worth's 18,076. There is nowhere else to go but up.
Ideally, a terminal is closed during renovation, but the airport is too busy for that. So upgrades are done in small bursts.
You wish it all looked like the Tom Bradley International Terminal, already roomy and undergoing a $1.5-billion expansion to add nine new gates to accommodate bigger aircraft.
Terminals 4 and 5 are where mega-players American and Delta lease space from the Los Angeles World Airport and, by virtue of their size, run these areas as if they were their own.
Then there are Terminals 1, 2 and 3, co-ops really, where smaller airlines share what feels like a shoe box.
Annual passenger volume is still below what it was before 9/11: 61 million now, 67 million then. Yet the airport, which is celebrating 50 years of jet travel, makes more than $100 million in profit annually on fees it charges airlines to use its facilities.
That success springs from a hyper-technical, vigilant, fiercely proud workforce that gets a lot of important things right yet is unable to deliver passengers to long-term parking in a relatively efficient manner.
Lot C is a grim, sun-baked prairie served by shuttle buses that arrive unreliably and are too frequently driven by operators whose unsmiling faces often are the first and last ones you see at the airport.
The simple task of changing airlines can be an ordeal as well, requiring a walk outside amid diesel fumes and blaring horns.
"Let's face it," says aviation consultant Jack Keady. "No matter how pretty anything inside LAX is, the penal gray exterior, noise and crowds outside downgrade it."
Where do I go now?
For even the experienced traveler, the variety of check-in options, bag drops and self-help kiosks at LAX is mind-boggling.
All told, there are 92 ways to check in among the airlines in the cramped domestic terminals. United alone offers nine ways to begin your flight.
The quality of the directional signs to the various check-in options varies significantly as well, but a walk-through finds that Southwest's are dramatically clearer and easier to follow.
One particularly confusing facet is the checked bag drop-off. In some terminals, you can check your bag curbside. At other times, you tag your bag at the counter, then lug and leave it at the TSA X-ray machine in the terminal lobby. Occasionally, the counter agent tags the bag and puts it on the conveyor belt behind her, just like in the good old days.
The airlines call this third method in-line baggage-check, and it's one of the reasons the Bradley terminal, where the procedure is routine, functions smoothly by comparison. The in-line baggage check is slowly being adopted for domestic carriers, but implementation has been spotty and slow.
For checked luggage, every suitcase, every set of golf clubs, every wedding dress must pass through a detection device that checks for explosives.
When the scanner detects something suspicious, lights flash and the TSA attendant pulls aside the bag, swabs the exterior for explosive residue, then opens it up and digs in.
On a Thursday morning, the alarm goes off. It turns out to be a tool belt. The attendant places a piece of paper inside the luggage announcing that it has been inspected, closes it up and sends it on its way.
A netherworld of conveyor belts takes the bags to a loading dock, where they are placed on carts and taken to the gate.
At the gate, handlers follow a loading sheet telling them where to place bags in the aircraft's belly.
"Take a pencil and put your finger underneath — that's your center of gravity," luggage crew chief Gary Adams says. By balancing the load on planes as much as possible, he says, airlines can maximize aerodynamics and fuel use.
If an airline had a chess master, it would be American ramp manager Pat Boylan, a 32-year veteran responsible for making the minute-by-minute decisions on when a plane should leave the gate.
This is acid-reflux work. There are dozens of audibles he can call. Gate changes require the redeployment of cleaning crews and caterers. If passengers were delayed by long lines at a TSA checkpoint, does he send the plane anyway, placing those late-arriving passengers on the next flight?
On a wall behind his workstation, a sign: "Flying is the second greatest thrill known to man. Landing is the first."
After Boylan decides to send a plane on its way, he gets clearance from the main control tower, which takes charge of the taxiing aircraft and queuing it for takeoff. Six-inch slips of paper containing each flight's route and aircraft type are passed to controllers as the plane leaves the gate. One controller may handle the taxiing process, another the actually takeoff. Out on the runway, it's first come, first served for takeoff.
Incoming flights, meanwhile, are picked up by LAX controllers while the planes are seven to 10 miles out, taking over from regional or national command centers.
The arrival of the gigantic A380s, with their 800-passenger load and 18 restrooms, is still an event, impressing passengers and air professionals alike. But the planes are so new that, in an emergency, LAX firefighters would not be able to reach the aircraft's second level to evacuate passengers.
This worries Capt. William Wick, one of the leaders in the firehouse that serves LAX. It worries him a lot. Because, in a potential emergency, access is everything.
'Here, you assume the worst'
Fire Station 80 is a gleaming, just-opened-in-November building positioned so that it can reach even the farthest point in the airport in three minutes, an FAA requirement.
"The urgency here is a little different," says Capt. Brian Allen, one of Wick's colleagues. "When you get an alarm at a regular fire station, you have an idea right away of what it'll be. Here, you assume the worst.
"It's a frickin' ballet, let me tell you," Allen says of the scramble to get to the airfield.
The alarm sounds about once or twice a day, usually as an Alert 2, the lowest level. An Alert 2 indicates a potential aircraft problem such as a sensor showing a faulty hydraulic system or a compartment door that didn't shut.
Alert 3s are the real deal, a full-on emergency, and months go by without one. The tower usually determines whether an alert is a 2 or a 3, though a pilot can also make that determination.
But even an Alert 2 can be cause for concern; for instance, when a sensor detects a problem and the pilot circles the plane, full of fuel, back to the airport, landing "heavy," Wick calls it, which in turn causes the brakes to overheat.
"That's probably our No. 1 call," Wick says. "They come in hot and fast. They have not used up all their fuel so they're hard to stop."
In most cases, firefighters will circle the plane after it has landed and use an infrared temperature device to detect abnormal heat sources. Black is OK. White is hotter.
Because crashes are rare — the last commercial crash at LAX killed 34 in 1991 — the 14 firefighters on duty at Fire Station 80 use an edge-of-the-airport training area to practice live burns and strategies.
One February morning, they gather to study the video of a 737 exploding into flames after landing on Okinawa in 2007, an Alert 3 situation that would probably require additional off-airport firefighters. Four people were injured in that explosion.
Wick's crew studies the video for wind direction, whether smoke is coming out the door, whether the pilot — the last to leave a plane — has abandoned it. Then they head out to their training area, where they put what they've learned to use, blasting water at a makeshift fuselage in what they call a "pump-and-roll" tactic in which the rigs move around the wreckage as they hit it with water.
On the way back to the fire station, Wick spots one of the new A380s that land about four times a day.
"How are we going to get 800 people out of that plane?" Wick asks. "See those three doors on top? We can't get to that."
LAX, which just approved the purchase of four new fire trucks, is in the process of ordering a stair truck, Wick says. At present, a cost analysis is being done on the stair trucks, which must be custom made.
"They get it," he says. "They know we really need that thing."
And like the many passengers he protects, Wick waits.