With ample seating in its spacious international terminal and six gates equipped for doubledecker jets, not to mention a fine selection of restaurants, this city's airport is ready for the massive 555-seat A380 airliner.
LAX has none of the above.
While Southern California officials dickered during the last decade about how to modernize Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco built a gleaming $1-billion international terminal that was specifically designed to accommodate the new Airbus super-jumbo jet. The world's largest passenger plane is expected to start service to the West Coast in spring 2007.
The stark contrast between San Francisco International Airport and LAX -- which plans to modify two gates for the double-decker plane at the already cramped Tom Bradley International Terminal -- has led to speculation that San Francisco will woo A380 flights away from LAX.
"If airlines feel like they are not going to be able to be accommodated, then they'll start looking at other airports," said Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus North America. McArtor met last week with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and airport officials to urge them to move ahead with plans to modernize LAX so it will retain its status as the gateway to the Pacific Rim.
"It's no secret that San Francisco is delighted to entertain any of these carriers," McArtor said. "Once they move there and get the maintenance and the ticket counters and ground handling, it's very difficult to get that route back."
San Francisco formed a marketing division several years ago to sell its new terminal to carriers and has produced colorful promotional materials touting the airport's readiness for the super-jumbo jet.
Los Angeles City Council members were arguing, meanwhile, about whether the Bradley terminal needed new gates to handle the plane.
"We would love to be the first airport to accommodate the A380," said John Martin, San Francisco International's director. "Physically, given the size of San Francisco versus the size of other cities in the U.S., we wouldn't necessarily be first on the list, but perhaps because of the readiness of our facility we can be."
LAX is the nation's No. 1 gateway for Asian travelers and is likely to remain so, even if SFO steals some flights. The world's fifth-busiest airport, LAX served more than twice as many international passengers in the first nine months of 2005 as SFO.
The Los Angeles airport agency is confident that efforts underway to reconfigure gates for the A380 will be finished in time for the jet's arrival.
"LAX is ready today to accept the A380 -- there is no question about that," said Lydia Kennard, executive director of the agency, Los Angeles World Airports. "We intend to have the improvements done. We think we will compete very, very well with San Francisco."
But the Los Angeles economy could suffer, aviation officials warn, if the needed construction becomes snarled in delays or the airport is unable to handle the volume of A380 flights with its two retrofitted gates.
"We've seen a couple carriers already decide to move some early A380 routes to San Francisco because of lack of confidence that LAX can handle an A380," McArtor said.
Sixteen carriers have purchased 159 of the super-jumbo jets from Airbus, a European consortium based in Toulouse, France. Some airlines, including Qantas Airways, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Lufthansa, Air France and Korean Air, have said they will fly the behemoth aircraft to the United States.
On the West Coast, only the Los Angeles and San Francisco airports have plans to handle the plane.
"It's not our inherent right to get those aircraft," said Frank Clark, executive director of the nonprofit organization that represents airlines operating out of the Bradley terminal. "The carriers have invested too much in that aircraft to have the perception of the aircraft be eroded by poor service because our airport isn't ready."
Several other U.S. airports are updating their airfields and terminals to serve the A380, which will hold at least 140 more passengers than the Boeing 747. Besides LAX and SFO, they include New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International and airports in Miami and Orlando. LAX expects to spend $65.5 million on A380 upgrades.
At these airports, taxiway and runway intersections need to be widened so the jet's 261-foot wingspan -- the length of three blue whales stretched out head to tail -- doesn't take out airfield lights when a pilot turns.
Tunnels, such as the portion of Sepulveda Boulevard that runs beneath LAX runways, need to be reinforced to handle the aircraft, which could be as heavy as 37 Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses, or 560 tons.
The jet also requires special gates with two loading bridges -- one to reach the upper deck and one for the lower.
After years of discussion about how it should accommodate the A380 at LAX, the city recently started a few improvements, including adding asphalt to airfield intersections and upgrading the two Bradley gates. One gate, where construction began recently, is expected to be completed by midsummer and the other by spring 2007. The modifications are expected to cost $16 million.
At 1 million square feet, the 22-year-old Bradley is less than half the size of San Francisco's international terminal. It is also infamous for its dingy interiors, winding lines and uninspired restaurants. Later this year, airport officials hope to begin a $400-million face-lift.
By contrast, San Francisco's cavernous 5-year-old international terminal has floor-to-ceiling windows, an aviation museum and cherrywood paneling and is easily able to seat 555 passengers as they wait to board. It has wireless Internet access, shower facilities, a direct connection to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and satellites of Bay Area restaurants.
At LAX, the airport agency is also preparing to rebuild the southernmost runway, a project that officials say is not necessary for the A380 but that could stymie the plane's arrival if it isn't finished by the time the first jet is set to begin service here. The runway is scheduled to be closed from April 25 through Dec. 22.
If the runway, the widest of the four at LAX, is closed when the first A380 arrives, the plane will have to use other runways closer to the terminals, forcing pilots to travel more slowly on the ground and possibly limiting the plane's takeoff weight.
As an incentive to expedite these improvements, McArtor told Los Angeles officials last week that he would bring the first test flight of the A380 in the U.S. to LAX in August, if the airport has finished modifying a gate.
Several carriers have announced that they will fly the A380 into and out of LAX, which is eventually expected to handle more A380 operations than any other U.S. airport. McArtor expects LAX to host 10 A380 flights a day by 2010.
But one carrier, Virgin Atlantic, has postponed its A380 service to LAX until early 2008 in part because it is concerned that the airport won't be ready.
Recently, Villaraigosa has sought to ease such worries, telling officials from Airbus and airlines that preparing to accommodate the A380 is a high priority.
"We're being assured by the appropriate authorities that the airport will be ready on time," said Wally Mariani, a senior executive vice president at Qantas. "There are some concerns in the back of our minds."
Qantas, the largest international carrier of passengers at LAX, hopes to be the first airline to bring the A380 here, in spring 2007.
Airline representatives are also worried about the airport's plans to park the craft at remote gates on LAX's western edge if the two A380 gates at the Bradley terminal are occupied. From there, passengers would have to be bused about 1.5 miles to the terminal. The city is buying new buses with a capacity of about 150 travelers.
Several carriers said that if they had to park their A380s, with their first-class lounges and upper-crust amenities, at those sterile, distant gates after a long overseas flight, they would reconsider bringing the aircraft to LAX.
"That kind of operation would be completely inconsistent with the level of service that we strive to provide our customers," said James Boyd, a spokesman for Singapore Airlines, which has not said where it will land the A380 in the U.S.
Armin Catrina, Lufthansa's general manager for operations for North and South America, said his airline, which intends to fly the A380 to LAX in 2008, would reconsider those plans if the planes had to park at the inconvenient gates. "That would be a problem for us," he said.
LAX officials say they are working on improving gates at other terminals so carriers will not be forced to use the remote gates.
"We will be able to provide excellent passenger service," Kennard said.
In addition to a reconfigured gate on each end of the Bradley terminal, airport officials want to build new gates on the back of the facility for the A380 and other new large aircraft, such as Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, which will seat up to 330. A proposal to construct those gates died last year when the city shelved its $11-billion plan to modernize LAX. Officials hope to revive it this year.
In the race to get the first A380 service in the U.S., however, Los Angeles airport officials say LAX does have some advantages that SFO lacks.
"What we have over San Francisco is the market. We just have to push to get our facilities in place," said Michael DiGirolamo, a deputy executive director at the city airport agency.
In another advantage for Los Angeles, airlines pay about $6.50 for every passenger who boards a plane at LAX, compared with $15.75 in San Francisco -- a major consideration for the cash-strapped industry.
LAX also has generally good weather and fewer delays.
San Francisco has stubborn fog that can cause delays because the airport's closely spaced, parallel runways cannot be fully used in bad weather.
In addition, LAX has a complicated web of connecting flights that would be difficult to replicate at SFO.
But if the airlines are motivated to move their flights, officials said, new connections can be created by offering incentives to partner airlines.
"They thought the movie business would be here forever," McArtor, the Airbus executive, said on a recent visit to Los Angeles. Referring to filming lured away by other states and nations, he added, "But they created an environment that made movie production go somewhere else, and it's not likely to ever come back."
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San Francisco's international terminal is the equivalent of 35 football fields. How it stacks up against LAX's Tom Bradley International terminal:
*--* SFO LAX Square footage 2.5 million 1 million Ticket counter positions 168 188 Immigration booths 82 68 A380-ready gates 6 0 Baggage carousels 12 8 Total terminal gates 24 12
Sources: San Francisco International Airport, LAXTEC Corp.
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Doing the heavy lifting
International air terminals must upgrade their facilities to handle the double-decker Airbus A380. Here's how the aircraft compares with the 747.
Length: 239 ft., 3 in.
Wingspan: 261 ft., 1 in.
Max. takeoff weight: 1,235,000 lbs.
Length: 231 ft., 10 in.
Wingspan: 211 ft., 5 in.
Max. takeoff weight: 875,000 lbs.
Sources: Boeing Co., Airbus