As the technological advancements and security quirks of air travel continue to evolve, airport terminals across the country are getting a much-needed face-lift.
These facilities, with their ticketing counters, security checkpoints, gates, and baggage claims, cram a lot of things into relatively tight quarters. But almost all of those aspects have radically changed in recent years. From added security in the post-9/11 era to the growth of smartphone boarding passes to the ongoing health concerns related to the pandemic, the physical spaces of airport terminals get used much differently now than they did just a few years ago.
For Delta Air Lines, one of the largest airlines in the world, that’s led to a big investment in redesigning its terminals to better accommodate the ways air travel has changed. Across three of its main hubs—Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), LaGuardia Airport (LGA), and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)—Delta has spent the last decade and more than $12 billion rethinking its facilities. It’s involved everything from building higher to almost completely eliminating the check-in hall.
“We had to go vertical to make all of this work,” says Ryan Marzullo, managing director of corporate real estate for Delta. The airline’s terminals at both LGA and LAX are now four-story buildings, known as headhouses, with new layouts, infrastructures, and even climate change contingency plans. The design of Delta’s premium lounges has adjusted to changing conditions, with more space and an outdoor skydeck at LGA.
Part of the way the company has reconfigured its space is by recognizing the changing ways its customers actually travel.
At LGA, Delta’s $4 billion remodel has greatly reduced the size of its check-in and ticketing areas, and reused that square footage to expand the security area to make the inevitable wait there a bit more pleasant. “That’s where you wait. You don’t wait in the check-in hall anymore,” Marzullo says. “Less than half of our customers [at LGA] check a bag. Most customers when they check in now use their phones, and then go right to security.”
For those still checking bags, the airline has decentralized its baggage system, enabling people arriving via transit or by car easy access to a check-in point on either the first or second level of the headhouse. Baggage conveyers are now tucked into the ceilings of the building, operating like a hidden highway system pulling luggage from various drop points and directing them to 37 gates on four concourses.
A hidden corridor also serves as the building’s spine, connecting each of those four concourses while centralizing the handling of garbage removal and concession resupply, and pulling it out of view of most travelers. “All those things are happening now behind the scenes,” Marzullo says.
At LAX, Delta has also rethought its security space as part of a $2.3 billion modernization. The building replaces what were formerly two separate terminals serving several different airlines, and now is primarily used by Delta. Consolidating services and streamlining security were primary concerns.
“Each [airline] had its own ticketing, it had its own security checkpoint, it had its own TSA baggage screening, it had its own baggage pickup area,” says Brian Ruppert, a managing director for Delta at LAX. The new facility combined each of these service spaces and dedicated more area for the newly centralized security checkpoints. “They were previously jammed into some awkward spaces in both terminals. So from a process standpoint, it’s extremely beneficial.”
The new building was also designed to work around the historically narrow footprint of terminals at LAX, which opened in the early 1960s. The new space includes large windows on both sides of the security checkpoint area, which is uncommon. “When you’re going through security, you see the windows ahead of you, and it’s a much friendlier customer experience,” Ruppert says.
At LAX, Delta also thought about how to improve the process of moving through the four concourses its headhouse links, lining the single-level walkway between them with large windows looking out on the tarmac. “You’re not underground, you’re not going through a lot of difficult grade changes. It’s very intuitive and gives you the ability to be able to see where you’re going and understand where you’re going,” says Ruppert. “It’s not byzantine.”
In Seattle, the experience of moving through the terminal was prioritized, both at security and after. The company estimates that improvements to its passport and security checkpoints will reduce average customer connection times by about 15 minutes. And a new 85-foot-high aerial walkway aims to provide a more pleasant trip through the terminal, with views of Mount Rainier in the distance and the active taxiway immediately below.
While mostly passenger focused, the terminal improvements should also smooth operations. At LGA, which sits on the water in Queens, all critical infrastructure and mechanical equipment was elevated above the flood levels expected to be seen in the region. And to reduce delays, nearly every gate was upgraded to be able to handle the full range of aircraft sizes now in use, meaning an early flight can be rerouted to almost any open gate. The airfield was even upgraded to allow for two-way traffic of planes, instead of the congestion prone one-way tarmac that previously existed.
Overall, Marzullo says, the $4 billion renovation reuses the space that was available, but with the modern realities of air travel in mind. “We were penned in, but we used every square inch of real estate that we could.”