See Inside LAX's New Delta "Sky Way" Before a Single Passenger Has Used It

Everyone loves that new car smell.

But have you ever inhaled that much rarer scent of dignified travel, the new-airport-terminal smell?

On April 20, 2022, Delta Air Lines opens the first phase of a drastic makeover of its facilities at Los Angeles International Airport, where Delta operates 140 daily flights, numbering among the most of the 69-odd airlines that fly there. People may call the place LAX for short, but that nickname is one of the few streamlined things about it. Outmoded designs, overloaded passenger counts, and underfunded facilities have long made LAX one of the most cumbersome, crowded, and dreaded airports in American travel.

A joint $2.3-billion project undertaken with the Los Angeles World Airports authority, which is steering $15 billion of overall improvements to LAX in the coming years, the new four-level T3 main building—known in industry lingo as the "headhouse" for the gates—was shown off to invited guests before passengers were allowed to sully it for the first time.

We wish you could smell the invigorating airport freshness through the screen, but these photos of the pristine, 770,00-square-foot improvement to long-neglected LAX are pretty satisfying, too.

Terminal 3 was redesigned to absorb the check-in and baggage claim duties for Delta Air Lines' other LAX terminal, T2, as well. If you ever had to use it, you know that area could feel as crowded and as miserably frenetic as a goat market. The consolidation of functions will happen through 32 self-serve check-in kiosks and 46 positions for manned assistance, all set in front of a vibrant, 250-foot-long digital backwall that runs the length of the terminal.

Eventually, this will function as the entry point to Delta's Sky Way, a 1.2-million-square-foot complex that combines the operations of Delta and its partner airlines at LAX's Terminals 2, 3, and TBIT.

Passengers will check in for their LAX Delta flights, regardless of the final terminal they fly from, in this newly modernized space. That's the real excitement for regular flyers: These spaces will finally allow LAX passengers to connect through Terminals 2, 3, parts of Terminal 1, and the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT, or "Tibbit" to locals) without having to go back outside to the curb and submit to security screening again. That's a long-awaited dream come true for anyone connecting through LAX to other destinations such as Hawaii, Asia, Australia, or other Western U.S. cities.

Among the improvements touted by Delta in its announcement of T3: Because of a deepened partnership with the Transportation Security Administration, "qualifying customers departing LAX can choose to use the latest facial recognition technology to check bags completely hands-free through use of their digital identity (made up of a customer's SkyMiles Member number, passport number, and Known Traveler Number)." Up to now, the program has been testing in Atlanta and Detroit.

After check-in, passengers head upstairs via these sweeping escalators or on one of five elevators. That's a lot of lift for an airport as cramped as LAX.

After the escalators, passengers make a U-turn to enter the security checkpoint complex. As they do, they pass under Little Wing, a three-dimensional artwork created just for the airport by artist Krysten Cunningham, whose work is regularly seen at local museums including the Getty and LACMA. Cunningham told us that inspiration came from the shape of paper planes. Though the planning and fabrication of the white rope took many months, it only took about 10 minutes to thread the line, tighten in around the pegs, and set the final, clothesline-like look of the piece.

"Our eye moves into illusionistic space until it lands on the hanging ball of yarn, which makes visible the gravity that airplane flight enables us to overcome," explains a sign hanging underneath the work. 

If you're a member of the Clear pre-clearance membership program, it's available at LAX's new Terminal 3.

If you're not a member of Clear or TSA PreCheck, you'll probably have to line up for standard TSA screening here—you can see the sockets in the ground where queue barriers can be erected. The entire southern wall of this waiting area is situated in the warm light of the famous Southern California sun, which we love, but we dearly hope what when this area is stuffed with luggage-laden passengers, the air conditioning is cranked high enough to combat that.

Angelenos who one day find themselves shuffling in single file down the long reach of this room might want to bookmark this page so they can refer back to what the pre-screening area looks like when it's wide-open and breezy.

Some of Delta's facilities at LAX dated back to 1961, but the new TSA screening area is fully modernized. By the time T3 is operating at full speed, there will be 14 screening lanes available in this unified room, which will also serve T2.

The entire wall of the screening area (note the built-in benches where you can sit to put your shoes back on) overlooks LAX's two northern runways, where some of the biggest international jets land. The panorama is pure California: a wide swath of the Santa Monica Mountains and, on a clear day, the Hollywood Sign off in the distance and to the right. It's one of the best views in any screening area in America, so it's almost a shame it's wasted on a room most passengers can't wait to leave.

Delta's Sky Club is one level above the screening area and it's even larger. This is our favorite part: the Sky Deck, an outdoor patio with a retractable roof under which you can soak up the same view at a fully stocked bar. Why don't more airport lounges have spaces like this? For planespotters, this is heaven. It sure beats staking out the runway from the parking lot of the In-N-Out Burger on Sepulveda Boulevard (Angelenos know what that means).

Another element of the Delta Sky Club that's bound to be popular is this nook that's been decorated with Italian-made mosaics. Is this an airport or a luxury ocean liner?

Six baggage carousels, which span much of the length of the building on the bottom floor, serve the 27-gate complex.

We do have to wonder about the wisdom of installing stairs in the middle of the exit zone of the baggage claim area, but if you look in the distance, you'll see a ramp that can be used instead. It emerges not far from TBIT (the international terminal), where LAX's one-way central roadway bends south.

But we did notice that the seating areas beside the baggage area stairs have lots of electrical outlets for easy charge-ups while you wait for your luggage.

The newly renovated gate areas were not open to our tour, so we can only hope that the preflight waiting zones are equally as blessed with places to plug in. We can't all get into the Sky Club, you know.

Normally, we wouldn't creep into a public restroom with a camera, but since Terminal 3 isn't open yet, it's fair game—and it gives us a chance to show you what an improvement the spacious quarters and updated fixtures are over the antiquated washrooms Delta was using before.

These sinks are touchless and have individual hand dryers built into each basin. Delta is touting these "low-flow" water-saving features because the airline is aiming for LEED Silver Certification for the whole terminal. That hasn't been awarded yet but may be in the cards on the basis of other unseen design elements that maximize energy use.

Because the pandemic travel slowdown allowed for a construction speed-up, the T3 project was completed 18 months ahead of schedule.

And there's a lot more to come at LAX. When all the rehabilitation projects are complete in a few years, passengers will be able to connect between all eight terminals without having to endure a second security screening. Multiple sky bridges, like the one under construction (pictured above) that connects with the entry to T3's screening area, will link the terminals to the airport's central parking garages.

Most excitingly—a 2.5-mile, six-stop Automated People Mover will enable passengers to take the city's Metro subway trains to an LAX station or park outside the airport's congested central zone and zip right to the terminals on an elevated track. The new transit system will even link to a newly constructed "Consolidated Rent-a-Car" facility that will replace the far-flung lots currently spread around the area, generating shuttle bus traffic and widespread misery. Trains that link all these components are slated to start running in 2023. At peak hours, the trains will go every two minutes.

LAX will probably never be a perfect airport. It was designed for a car-centric city where growth got out of hand. But these improvements by Delta and the LAX authority are making strides, and perhaps we can hope that soon a trip through LAX will no longer fill us with the abject dread with which it's currently synonymous.