America’s Second Busiest Airport: A Short History Of LAX

LAX stands proud as one of the major gateways into and out of the USA. The airport is the second busiest in the States for 2021, conveying around 85 million passengers a year through its gates. In existence for more than 70 years, Los Angeles International has grown out of the wheat and barley fields of southern California to become one of the world’s most important aviation hubs.

LAX history
Los Angeles International is a major international gateway, and a key hub for multiple US airlines. Photo: Los Angeles World Airports

Once a dirt landing strip with a single hangar built for Curtiss-Wright, LAX has been through many changes in its lifespan. Having spent a decade as a municipal airport, it became a key wartime airfield and eventually the international airport we know today. Expansion at LAX has continued, and today it is a hub for no less than four major US carriers – Alaska, American, Delta and United.

Mines Field – the very beginning

The story of LAX begins in 1926 when the Los Angeles City Council realized the city needed an airfield of its own if it wanted to capitalize on the emerging aviation industry in the US. Local real estate agent William W Mines promoted the location for the construction of the airport, and so it became known as ‘Mines Field.’

LAX history
The local paper announced the choice of the site for the airport. Photo: Los Angeles World Airports

Construction began in 1928 to convert the arable ground in the fields into basic dirt landing strips, and it officially opened in October that year. Hangar No 1 was erected a year later by Curtiss-Wright, for use as a flight school and to service its aircraft. The building still stands on the airport grounds today, and is still in active use!

As aviation began to flourish, so too did Mines Field. Just two years after its opening, the dirt runway was replaced by a granite surface, suitable for year-round operations. The facility added a restaurant, two more hangars, offices and a control tower. In the summer of 1930, it was renamed Los Angeles Municipal Airport.

LAX history
Actress Viola Peters at the dedication ceremony of Los Angeles Municipal Airport, June 7, 1930, with Hangar Number One in the background. Photo: Los Angeles World Airports

Attracting the airlines

Despite significant investment in the facilities at the airport, no airlines could be tempted away from their established operations at nearby Burbank. It took the onset of war and the subsequent huge injection of $12.5 million by the Los Angeles Department of Airports to tempt airlines to begin services here.

With funding in place and an expansion plan on the table, 1946 finally saw airlines moving to the airport. TWA, United, Southwest Airways (later Pacific Air Lines), American, and Western Airlines all began passenger operations by the end of that year. A year later, Pan Am made the move also. The airport was renamed Los Angeles International Airport in 1949.

LAX history
It took time to get airlines to come, but now they flock to the airport. Photo: Los Angeles World Airports

The airport hosted a number of notable milestones, such as the first visit from the 707 prototype outside of Seattle. It was also home to the first Airport Tunnel, allowing Sepulveda Boulevard to pass under the two runways. In 1958, ahead of the first widebody operation for the airport – TWA’s 747s – architecture firm Pereira & Luckman was contracted to plan the re-design of the airport for the jet age.

LAX history
Today, the airport has piers connecting its satellite terminals to the central area, giving it a bug-like appearance. Photo: Getty Images

Expansion and more expansion

The ‘Jet Age’ terminal gave LAX some of its most iconic features. The Theme Building is one of its most recognizable landmarks today, and although the central area never did get the vast glass and steel dome that was originally planned, the beetle-like layout has its roots in this jet age design.

LAX history
The Theme Building remains one of the airport’s most recognizable landmarks. Photo: Los Angeles World Airports

By the time the airport celebrated its 50th anniversary, plans were being made for its biggest expansion yet. With the city set to host the 1984 Olympic Games, LAX needed to be bigger and better than ever, ready to welcome airlines and passengers from all over the world.

In 1982, ground was broken for the new Terminal 1 and a new International Terminal. Mayor Tom Bradley would become the namesake for the International Terminal, a 963,000-square-foot (89,500 m2) facility costing $123 million. Terminal 1 and the Tom Bradley International Terminal both opened in 1984, while Terminal 2 was rebuilt along with added parking and pier connectors to the satellite terminals.

LAX history
The iconic light installation was commissioned at the turn of the millennia. Photo: Los Angeles World Airports

Work on the airport has continued into the new millennium, with a new air traffic control tower, the 32-foot-tall LAX sculpture and various other improvements added in the ‘90s and early 2000s. In 2008, plans were unveiled for a $4.11 billion renovation for the airport, to upgrade the International Terminal and develop facilities in the central terminal area.

LAX history
The people mover will run above the busy airport to connect passengers to other transportation facilities. Photo: Los Angeles World Airports

At present, all of the terminals are undergoing refurbishment. The airport is also receiving a new 4,300 place parking facility, a metro station and a new car rental hub. Everything is set to be connected up by an automated people mover, a 2.25-mile-long elevated train system due to be operational by 2023. With the Olympics coming to Los Angeles again in 2028, more expansion is guaranteed.