New Terminal Connector Improves Passenger Accessibility at Los Angeles Int’l

New Terminal Connector Improves Passenger Accessibility at Los Angeles Int’l
Kristen Rindfleisch
Published in: 

Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) and Delta Air Lines have opened the final phases of their joint Delta Sky Way project at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), a combined investment of $2.3 billion to revitalize one of the airline’s key hubs. The project added an enclosed, post-security passageway between the upper floors of Terminal 3 and Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), as well as redeveloped facilities in terminals 2 and 3.

The terminal connector is the final piece in an infrastructure puzzle that allows passengers to flow directly from Terminal 1 to Terminal 8 post security. It also eliminates the need for airside bussing between terminals 2, 3 and TBIT. Prior to the terminal connector, post-security passengers had to be bussed between the three terminals, or exit and re-enter through another security checkpoint. Now, they have easier access to and through all the terminals.

Easy movement for guests is a huge focus at LAX. “Everything that we do is in the vein of being as accessible as possible, even beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act,” notes LAWA Chief Development Officer Terri Mestas.


Project Name: Delta Sky Way

Location: Los Angeles Int’l Airport

Airport Owner/Operator: Los Angeles World Airports

Cost: $2.3 billion

Construction: 2018–Aug. 2023

Project Components

Delta West Headhouse: 175,000 sq. ft.

Features: Delta One lobby, with private check-in, security screening & lounge for premium passengers

Terminal Connector: 592 ft. long pedestrian walkway between Terminal 3 & Tom Bradley Int’l Terminal

Features: Moving walkways; future baggage system underneath; outdoor plaza for passengers in the works

Construction for Connector & Headhouse:
Oct. 2020–2nd Quarter 2023

Engineer of Record, Design Team Lead: Arup

General Contractor: Hensel Phelps

Architect: Gensler

Program & Project Management, Baggage Handling System Management, Tenant Move Management: STV; S&P Construction

Moving Walkways: Schindler

Modular Walls (During Construction): SwiftWall

Key Benefits: Streamlined passenger movement from Terminal 3 to Tom Bradley Int’l Terminal; updated self-serve check-in kiosks in Terminal 3; premium check-in, TSA screening & lounge for Delta One passengers

Creating the most stress-free flow possible from curb to gate is part of a larger effort to enhance the overall passenger experience. “This terminal connector fits into that, and specifically how we can provide a seamless experience post-security,” Mestas says. Focused conversation about passenger flow began with Delta in 2017. Given the volume of international flights in and out of TBIT, the carrier wanted to provide passengers with an easier post-security connection between Terminal 3 and TBIT.

In addition to the new passenger walkway to/from TBIT, Terminal 3 now features connections in its two vertical cores that will enable passengers to access LAX’s Automated People Mover (APM), which is expected to come online this year. When it’s completed, passengers coming from the APM will be able to drop their bags and proceed right to the TSA checkpoint.

As the executive directly overseeing LAWA’s overarching $30+ billion Capital Improvement Program, Mestas plays a crucial role in reshaping LAX. The first phase of the program (which includes the Delta Sky Way project) started in 2018 with $15 billion; and the second phase began in 2022. The Delta Sky Way project includes a new headhouse for terminals 2 and 3, replacing the entire Terminal 3 concourse and completely renovating the original 1961 satellite building.

Terminal 3 was the oldest terminal within the Central Terminal Area at LAX and had not been renovated in decades. Delta had been in Terminal 5 previously but recognized that relocating to the north side of the airport would provide more opportunity for expansion and better connection to its partner carriers and TBIT. In 2016 to 2017, Delta moved from Terminal 5 to terminals 2 and 3 in preparation for the consolidation and construction work.

Delta Vice President of Los Angeles and Global Sales West Scott Santoro says that redeveloping terminals 2 and 3 was essential to giving Angelenos the airport experience they deserve. “The Sky Way program gave Delta and LAWA the opportunity to deliver an airport experience that is modern, efficient and focused on customer ease,” he says. The program combined areas for check-in, ticketing, baggage claim and security into a single interconnected complex—a big change from the previous separate structures. Additionally, the project includes a comprehensive renovation, including updated concessions, significantly expanded restroom capacity and more seating.

The $2.3 billion project was funded jointly by LAWA and Delta. “The partnership with Delta has been really positive,” Mestas remarks. The pair teamed up with global sustainable development consultancy Arup as engineer of record and design team lead, Hensel Phelps for construction and Gensler for architecture.  STV and S&P Construction, in a joint venture, provided project and program management, including specific elements such as tenant moves and managing installation of the new baggage handling system.

The Final Link

The new Terminal 3 connector that is a part of the Delta Sky Way project is an elevated walkway that stretches 592 feet, featuring expansive views of LAX’s busy north airfield. For LAWA, it was important for the connector to be durable, sustainable and resilient. Regarding the look, inspiration was drawn from the airport’s existing architectural language and materials, reinforcing connectivity and unification of the campus. “We didn’t want to just do a glass box,” remarks Ben Anstiss, an associate principal with Arup. “So it has these cool picture windows that frame views of Los Angeles.”

The structure connects the third level of Terminal 3 and mezzanine level of TBIT, with moving walkways in both directions. Passengers can take a break and just enjoy the views while transferring between terminals or accelerate their pace by continuing to walk on the moving conveyor. 

Although the area where the terminal connector was built had been open above ground, below ground was another story. The site required careful coordination from the civil and other engineering teams to avoid existing utility conflicts. “The structural engineers had to get very creative with their foundations in trying to ensure that we could build this,” specifies Jeff Brunswig, operations manager at Hensel Phelps. “It was an amazing job by the whole team.” In the end, there were zero utility strikes by the construction team, despite the extraordinarily complex site.

In addition to increasing passenger mobility, the terminal connector was designed and built to carry a future baggage handling system under the structure that runs from terminals 1, 2 and 3 all the way to TBIT. The airport is also in the process of adding a public landside plaza beneath the connector that will allow travelers to get fresh air before their flights. It is slated for completion in mid-2024.

Delta’s New West Headhouse

The updated terminals 2 and 3 comprise a sprawling 1.2-million-square-foot Sky Way project that opened in phases since April 2022. It includes 27 gates, a centralized check-in lobby, an expanded security checkpoint and new baggage claim area. The consolidated security checkpoint features 14 lanes for TSA screening, including Delta’s newest offering, in partnership with TSA. “Delta Digital ID uses biometric facial matching, eliminating the need for an agent-facilitated document check, allowing customers to move through bag drop and security checkpoints with more convenience and ease without having to show a physical ID,” Santoro explains.

The new West Headhouse itself is a 194,000-square-foot, four-level structure (Level 1 Baggage Claim, Level 2 Ticketing, Level 3 Security and Level 4 Club Lounge). There are two new APM cores at each side of the headhouse, each about 58,000 square feet.

The new consolidated lobby has 46 staffed counters and 32 self-serve kiosks to streamline the process of checking in and printing boarding passes. Behind the counters, a 250-foot digital backwall provides wayfinding information in English and Spanish, flight and gate information, and capacity levels in the Delta Sky Club.

By excavating under the apron and depressing the floor level, project designers were able to push back the baggage claim area on the lowest level of the building and gain space for six new carousels to serve Delta’s domestic operations. “This was significant because the pattern of the airport was set so long ago, with limited depth and height,” explains Neil McLean, design manager with Gensler. “In my opinion, it’s one of the largest baggage claim spaces at LAX right now because of that particular move.” The change also set a pattern for ticketing and security on the floors above, allowing expansion over the curb and maximizing space that hadn’t been previously available. “Those were big moves,” McLean emphasizes.

A new area on the lower arrivals level of Terminal 3 provides an enhanced experience for Delta’s top-tier customers. “The West Headhouse is home to our dedicated Delta One check-in, allowing [us] to further provide our customers with the premium and personalized curb-to-claim experience that they deserve,” Santoro comments.

In addition to a separate check-in area, Delta One customers have a private TSA screening lane. In this area, customers are welcomed by a team of agents dedicated to providing “white-glove service” with extras such as freshening towels and light food/beverage options. “It is spectacular,” Anstiss remarks.

“Delta will continue to elevate the premium experience for our most loyal customers, with an exclusive Club for Delta One customers,” Santoro adds. The new lounge, scheduled to open later in 2024, will measure about 10,000 square feet and connect directly to the Terminal 3 Sky Club, which is already one of the carrier’s largest.

The Delta One check-in area showcases local artwork through a collaboration with ArtLifting, a social enterprise that supports artists facing challenges related to disabilities and housing insecurity.

In the new West Headhouse, the art team from LAX partnered with Delta to install two murals in the pre-security Departures Lobby on the third level. Timothy Nolan’s Collider Beaming is a vinyl mural of collaged images portraying subatomic particles that merge to form intricate maze patterns. The second piece, A Place for Us All, is a hand-painted mural by Sarah “Buckley” Samiani that depicts movement and energy in a distinctly Los Angeles color palette.

Santoro notes that Delta has invested more than $12 billion in U.S. hub airports during the past decade. “We used the pandemic to accelerate that investment in both our airport experience and our network, and today Delta is proud to be the largest carrier at LAX with over 155 flights per day to 55 destinations worldwide,” he reports. “We will keep investing to deliver the best-in-class experience for our customers.”


The Delta Sky Way project, including the terminal connector, was designed with the goal of earning Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification. It also was built to CALGreen standards, with features such as low-flow water fixtures that use recycled water and low-emission materials for all interior spaces.

The facade of the terminal connector was designed with sustainability in mind as well. Glazing on the north side and a cool roof over the entire structure help reduce cooling loads and energy needs. “We were very prescriptive and judicious in our use of glazing…but have a good ratio of solid to glazed portions of the [structure’s] skin,” says Todd MacPherson, principal with Gensler. Engineers concentrated glazing in passenger areas and also specified it in back-of-house spaces to provide employees with natural daylight. Throughout the day, lighting levels are maintained to meet CALGreen standards.

This approach was applied to the whole project, with thoughtful and sustainable building and finishing materials selected for all of Delta Sky Way. In particular, the team considered embodied carbon—the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, transportation and construction of various options. Mestas notes that all materials used in the project have high recycled content, and products were regionally sourced. “We constructed the project using the most sustainable methodologies that we could,” she remarks.

That included local contractors and work crews. “As with all of our transformation projects, we are focused on creating opportunities and positive economic impacts for Angelenos,” Mestas comments, noting LAWA’s 30% local hire goal. 

On site, crews recycled more than 75% of construction waste. 

Pandemic Effects

Like most industry projects over the past few years, the Delta Sky Way project at LAX experienced supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We had to pivot to look at potential substitutions of materials or maybe re-sequence work in order to accommodate when materials were coming in,” Mestas recalls. Long-lead items were procured early and stored in warehouses until they were needed. During construction, fewer crewmembers were able to work within one area at a time, and there were additional costs for personal protection equipment and related supplies for the nearly 1,000 onsite tradespeople.

Although the pandemic caused issues, it also provided opportunities for the Delta Sky Way project to move ahead of schedule. “LAWA and Delta were very decisive,” recalls Anstiss. “They said, ‘We’re going to take this opportunity for what it is. We’re going to accelerate construction.’ They really did lead the charge.”

Arup then worked closely with LAWA, Delta, Hensel Phelps and STV/S&P to optimize the strategy and determine how to proceed strategically.

Working creatively, the team was able to adjust and overlap project phases, which meant they were built simultaneously and opened six months apart. This caused some rework at the time, but ultimately allowed for significant acceleration. “I think as engineers, we love challenges,” Anstiss remarks. “We love when someone says, ‘What if we did this?’.”

The revised overlapped phasing, compounded by efficiencies gained from crews working while the pandemic dramatically suppressed passenger traffic, allowed teams to complete the Delta Sky Way project about 18 months ahead of schedule. “It really has been amazing to see just how well everything’s gone and everyone sort of came together to get us where we are,” Anstiss reflects.

In-House Finales

Recently, LAWA has pivoted to handling its own commissioning. While some airports choose to have their contractors do so, Mestas feels that having the commissioning agent directly under the owner has several benefits. “It’s kind of your last quality check—eyes and ears to make sure that what you specified is being delivered,”
she explains.

LAWA has its own inspectors as well as robust design and construction guidelines that all projects must follow for consistency. Mestas notes that it is crucial to keep the manual up to date with achievable guidelines for the airport’s partners. “When you do projects like this in a live space, you must make sure that you’re looking at phasing,” she adds. “We have a group working pretty much 24/7 that does all of the construction logistics, so they are very engaged in this.”

LAWA also has an in-house airport operational readiness team to ensure sufficient preparation and communication. In addition to working with airlines directly involved with or affected by a given project, the team works with airlines and other tenants/leaseholders adjacent to the work. “As you do projects like connectors, there’s a lot of technical things—you have to look at those expansion joints, all of those utilities that go back and forth from these different areas in the building and who has responsibility,” Mestas offers as an example. She stresses the importance of paying attention to the line of demarcation and scope of responsibility to avoid any gray areas, especially concerning connections and utilities. LAWA uses a detailed project interface agreement with each partner to provide clarity and set expectations up front. It also outlines a process for resolving issues that do arise.

Challenges Overcome

By their very nature, massive projects that involve terminals in operation present design and construction challenges. The Delta Sky Way project was no exception, as it required multiple enabling projects to create space for the new construction. “Working on top of a live, active terminal was orders of magnitude more difficult than a greenfield site,” MacPherson comments.

In the early stages of renovating terminals 2 and 3, a temporary connector was built over the Terminal 3 concourse to allow construction to continue with passengers moving directly through the workspace on the West Headhouse and allow passengers access to the new Terminal 3 gates. “We essentially scooped out the middle of terminals 2 and 3 and built a connector over the Terminal 3 concourse,” MacPherson explains. “And that was all in an effort to keep passenger flows moving as efficiently as possible.”

Lessons Learned

Anyone undertaking an initiative like LAX’s Delta Sky Way project should carefully consider the project execution and delivery method, Mestas suggests. It’s also important to build sufficient escalation and contingencies into plans, she adds. “There’s always some undeveloped scope that you’re going to discover as you go through the process.”

Anstiss recommends talking to authorities with jurisdiction over the project early and often. The teams at LAX have very good relationships with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, the fire department, police department and so forth, he reports. “Getting the key people in a room or on a call and being able to have discussions and being very open with them and building that trust really made a difference,” he shares. “Being able to have those conversations, I think, is an absolute lifesaver in terms of both time and just getting the thing done.”

During construction, teams used preparation and communication to minimize the impact on travelers. “Everybody did a great job making sure that the preplanning of these adjustments for path of egress and travel was communicated in the wayfinding efforts…so that it wasn’t a tremendous impact,” Brunswig says.

McLean adds that LAWA and Delta’s experience with their prior remodel of Terminal 5 helped identify potential pain points to avoid. “LAWA and Delta worked hard to create a thorough implementation plan, making sure that the design and construction team understood all the intermediate phases and operational changes needed to help ease the stress of construction for their passengers,” he recalls.

Among the overabundance of information that must be communicated, the end goal for the project is perhaps the most important, McLean advises. “Over the long term, the project goals stayed the same: We needed to modernize these two terminals and integrate with the APM system,” he relates. “The direction may have been altered from time to time…but we always knew that the goal was still the same.”

Extensive utility work, shutdowns and temporary relocations required careful planning, and key project teams worked closely with LAWA and Delta to maintain terminal functionality. “There were a lot of charrettes and a lot of teaming involved to make sure that the finished product was doable by keeping the terminals operational,” Brunswig notes. He recommends assembling a cohesive team that collaborates effectively and shares a common agenda to achieve the desired outcome despite challenges or changes that will invariably arise.

Teamwork was particularly critical in avoiding existing utilities under the new Terminal 3 connector. Matthew Johnson, principal in charge with Gensler, notes that the contractor and design team’s structural engineers were surgical about knowing where columns were. “It was literally down to inches on some things,” he recalls. 

Although the pandemic created challenges, it also helped LAWA complete the project ahead of schedule. “The acceleration was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, hopefully, to rethink something that we had been phasing and working out,” Anstiss reflects.

Brunswig agrees that the airport operator and airline made a wise choice in overlapping project phases. “It was a great decision by LAWA and Delta to accelerate this project and take advantage of a bad situation,” he comments.

Next Up at LAX

As LAWA continues its Capital Improvement Program, the second phase of work will include adding a new concourse and terminal to LAX’s existing footprint. Southwest Airlines, through a lease acquisition model, will build a new Concourse 0 as an extension of Terminal 1. The new facility will sit where passengers currently queue for taxis and ride-share pickups. As of late 2023, that project was about 60% through the design phase.

LAWA is also building Terminal 9, which will span a whopping 1.4 million square feet. Terminal 9 will also include a new APM station, parking and dedicated entrance roads. It is a progressive design-build project currently in procurement.

Additionally, a new project is designed to bring a holistic look and feel to all of LAX’s physical and digital wayfinding elements to help guide travelers through the airport’s terminals and pathways. Project designers will use architectural elements and materials as well as static and digital signs. “It could be pieces of artwork that act as guideposts to guide people through,” Mestas notes. Back-of-house signage and building systems as well as airside signs for aircraft will be included in the project.

A large, complex project to improve entrance roadways is just beginning the design process. “We’re basically creating a larger loop that brings people into the airport to distribute traffic in a better way and eliminate all the congestion for the airport but also around the community,” Mestas explains.

Furthermore, there are multiple projects underway and on the books to improve runways, create new taxiways and modernize cargo facilities. LAWA also has preliminary plans to create a landscaped plaza in the center of the airport’s U-shaped multi-terminal layout. This will allow pre-security passengers to walk outside from one side of the airport to the other, or simply enjoy the California sunshine before taking off.


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