A Sneak Peak at the New Tom Bradley International Terminal

They finally put the LA in LAX.

Five years ago, if someone had invited you to a black tie party at the Tom Bradley International Terminal, you’d think they were being ironic.  The main international terminal at the country’s third largest airport had all the sophistication and charm of a school hallway. 

Fast forward to Thursday night, June 20, when 1000 guests walked past a partition of curtains and down a red carpet and entered the new “TBIT,” as it’s been rechristened.  It is a sleek, futuristic space, bejeweled with giant video installations and tricked out with the world’s best retailers and some of LA’s finest restaurants. 

I swung an invite to the preview of the TBIT at Los Angeles International Airport. It  kind of helps when the chairman of my newspaper board also happens to be Peter Lowy, the co-CEO of the Westfield Group, the company that developed the concessions inside the terminal.

The evening itself had the feel of a Hollywood premiere, with about 100 times more security.   Guests in their evening wear arrived by shuttle vans from a satellite parking lot, and threaded their way through passengers in sweat pants schlepping excess luggage.

The entrance to TBIT was lined with models in suitably tight dresses offering pretty drinks along the way.   They were as show-stopping as the bomb-sniffing Belgian malinois that stood by their handlers.

Just at the entrance to the terminal, a massive video display of falling water provoked initial oooohs and ahhs.  Then the terminal opened up—a vast space of arched white roofs and glass.  As much iron went into this terminal, so the brochure says, as would go into two Eiffel Towers. But the big visual deal are those video screens—screens the size of football fields it seemed—displaying stunning images of surf, stars, Big Ben-like clocks, dancing girls.  Jaw-dropping stuff.

The terminal itself is a place to seriously shop.  Gucci, Burberry, Kitson, and, in a nod to LA, Fred Segal are interspersed with numerous other high-end retailers and duty free stores.   Even the duty-free tilts to the highest end: the display at the liquor shop offered a 50 year-old Glenfiddich single malt scotch and a bottle of rare Chinese rice wine for $17,000.

The food was the biggest upgrade, from my point of view.   That because while you can find Gucci anywhere, Westfield wisely tapped restaurants that either originated in LA or cook as if they did.  So, as you wait in the future for your El Al flight, you can check out Umami Burger, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, The Larder, Border Grill, Chaya, LaMill Coffee, Marmalade, 800 Degrees, Ink Sack or some of the non-LA offerings: III Forks from Dallas, Petrossian Caviar, Vino Volo.  There was also, of course, Panda Express.   But the chef dishing out its vegetarian eggrolls assured me, “This is the high end Panda Express.”

Many of the restaurants turned out for the event with endless bites for the guests.  Border Grill’s founders Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were there serving plantains, rice and beans, as well as ceviche.   The Larder at Tavern offered sandwiches of burrata and rapini.  Chaya made tuna tartare. InkSack, Michael Voltaggio’s lunchtime place, offered fried chicken sandwiches. And those Panda Express eggrolls?  Not bad.

Westfield didn’t design the interior, but it did reconfigure the shopping to give the terminal the feel of a high-end urban mall, not a way station serving 4,000 passengers per hour. 

“This is a perfect example of public-private partnership,” Peter Lowy said in a short speech to the crowd. “Sometimes government really works.”

Mayor Antonio  Villaraigosa took the stage and pronounced the terminal the best in the United States, if not the world.  Across from where he stood, in the grand hall, a sign proclaimed this the Villaraigosa Hall—so he may be biased.

But the mayor spread the credit: to Lowy and Westfield, to Gina Marie Lindsey, the 5 foot tall powerhouse executive of Los Angeles World Airports who is overseeing what is the largest public works project in LA history, and to the airport commissioners, headed by Michael Lawson.

There’s still a ways to go before the TBIT opens. If the preview came before the actual premiere, that may be because the mayor leaves office July 1, and he wanted to rightly be the one to open the project he managed to pushed through.

“I want to see us celebrate this great town,” he said, before the Hollywood Scoring Orchestra played a tribute to him entitled, “Portale.”

The evening continued, with composer David Foster and some former American Idols entertaining the crowd.  I left as a young Korean man was onstage singing Italian opera.  I grabbed a chocolate chip cookie from a model holding a silver tray, smiled at the bomb-sniffing shepherd, and made my way back out to the old terminal.  There, exhausted passengers slunked across dirty floors to join ever-lengthening lines—with no idea of the terminal just beyond the curtain.