Last year we started asking readers to do this send us your urgent questions via Los Angeles and California.
Every few weeks we put the voting questions and ask the readers to decide which question we should answer in the form of a story.
This question, suggested by a source cited in a previous story, won our most recent reader poll: Why is LAX far from central LA?
“True friendship is knowing that your friends would pick you up from LAX, but you care too much about them to ask for that ride.”
This pinpoint wisdom from the popular Instagram account Overheard LA points out a truth many Angelenos know: Getting to and from Los Angeles International Airport can be a major headache.
Angelenos are not alone – after all, it is common for airports around the world to be located far from inner cities.
Getting to LAX can easily take 45 minutes from downtown LA, an hour from Hollywood, and much longer if you’re traveling from the Valley or Orange County. Then there’s often bumper to bumper gridlock to endure once you arrive. And, like a Times reader written down a few years ago: “The LAX FlyAway bus from Union Station is great for getting to the airport, but getting home is another matter.”
Today’s travelers may take LAX’s location for granted. But it wasn’t inevitable that Los Angeles’ premier airport — one of the top five busiest in the world — would land in the Westchester area, just a few minutes’ drive from the Pacific Ocean.
Its location shaped the development of neighboring communities and the LA area as a whole. El Segundo was an oil town first, said Peter Westwick, an associate history professor at USC and director of the Aerospace History Project. “But then it shifted and became an aerospace hub, partly because LAX is there.”
LAX has also helped transform places like Venice and Santa Monica into the tourism hubs they are today. “When you arrive in LA, it’s magical that you’re right on the beach. I think it’s helped Westside tourism,” said Jean-Christophe Dick, vice president of the Flight Path Museum. “People want to be close to the airport.”
What if LA’s main airport had been developed elsewhere? Let’s dive into the multiverse of California air travel for a brief moment. Hypothetically speaking – if history had turned out differently – today’s travelers could fly out of, or even travel to, a modern development of Vail Field (a former airfield in Montebello). “super port” in Palmdale by bullet train to take flights on supersonic intercontinental jets (yes, really).
We’ll get to those possibilities in a moment, but now, out of the multiverse and back to the dawn of air travel in Los Angeles, let’s find out why LAX sits on the site of an extraordinary Barley Field near the coast.
In the 1920s, air travel was a rare privilege, if not exactly glamorous. “It used to be a bit more hair-raising,” Dick said. “You would be flying at a lower altitude than you are today, which means you would feel it in a small plane weather permitting.”
“Planes weren’t that reliable,” Dick continued, “and the safety standards weren’t what they are today.”
However, the risks and inconveniences of air travel failed to dampen the excitement surrounding the flashy mode of transport.
Many in Los Angeles saw airplanes as “a symbol of the technological future,” Westwick said. “There were all these airfields springing up all over the LA Basin… By 1929 there were over 50 airfields within 30 miles of downtown.” (Some of those airfields were later converted into golf courses.)
The danger of flying was one of the reasons airfields were kept a little away from built-up areas – places like the area around what was then relatively rural West Chester. “[Planes] crashed all the time, and you don’t want airplanes to stop and crash in a neighborhood full of houses or businesses,” Westwick said. “Also, airfields were noisy and dusty.”
Another interesting fact, courtesy of Westwick: All these decentralized, widely scattered airfields around the city are one of the factors behind the sprawl of the LA suburbs. “Industry follows airports and real estate developers follow industry,” he said. “That is [one of the reasons why] You get these satellite cities scattered across LA.”
At the end of the 1920s, the search for a suitable plot of land for the construction of a city airport was in full swing.
The pressure was there. On April 3, 1927, the Times pages reported: “While Los Angeles sleeps, other coastal cities stock up on urban airports for use in nearby, profitable transcontinental air travel.”
Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his flight across the Atlantic and years away from any public reckoning for his racist and anti-Semitic remarks, delivered a speech at the Colosseum in September 1927 on the future of air travel. “If you expect to keep your city on the air map, it will be necessary to build a city airport,” he explained.
Two months earlier, a real estate agent named William W. Mines had offered 640 acres of Bennett Rancho in the Inglewood area to the city of Los Angeles as an airport.
This location, later known as Mines Field, was eventually chosen as the site for Los Angeles Airport – it became the predecessor of today’s Los Angeles International Airport.
But why was Mines Field chosen over other Los Angeles airfields?
For one, it was cheap land that used to be used to grow beans and barley, Westwick said.
Also, the city needed a large, open area for the airport, an advantage Mines Field had. It was “pretty much a blank slate,” Dick said, meaning the airport was able to grow over time.
Excitement about Mines Field was heightened when the airfield was chosen to host the hugely popular 1928 National Air Races, which “attracted several hundred thousand people over the course of that event,” Westwick said.
Los Angeles Municipal Airport, located on the Mines Field site, began operating in October 1928. However, it was nearly two decades before Mines Field’s fate was sealed, Westwick said.
It was not until 1937 that the City of Los Angeles officially committed to purchasing Mines Field. “LA is making a huge commitment to investing all of this money to completely modernize LA Airport,” Westwick said.
“The commitment involved issuing bonds to cover the cost of the upgrades — meaning the City of LA was taking a risk. There was no guarantee the airlines would jump to LA Airport,” he said via email. But in the 1940s, after World War II, “airlines rewarded this civic investment by skipping and committing to operate out of LA Airport.”
“That makes Mines Field LAX and makes LAX the central hub” for business travelers today, Westwick said, as opposed to Grand Central Air Terminal at Glendale (Los Angeles’ premier commercial airport) or any other airport.
Fast forward a decade or two for one last colorful fold in aviation history – the proposed Palmdale “superport”.
Mid-century Los Angeles saw efforts for a new international airport to ease congestion around LAX. The Board of Airport Commissioners endorsed the idea of an airport in Palmdale in 1968.
How would travelers get to Palmdale? By bullet train, of course, which would take people from the LA basin to the airport. (In 1988, The Times reported that the Los Angeles Department of Airports has so far spent “more than $100 million acquiring and maintaining 17,750 acres of desert” in the Palmdale area.)
That’s right — in an alternate reality of your life in Los Angeles, you could fly to Palmdale instead of LAX for your next flight.
So what happened to the “Superport” idea?
“Why the initially announced jetport was never built is a complicated story involving money, the San Andreas Fault, demographics, the airline business, a bullet train, and the US Air Force,” wrote staff writer TW McGarry. (Also, Palmdale’s altitude and temperatures presented difficulties for the planes, Westwick added.)
A Palmdale “superport”. The once popular Grand Central Airport in Glendale. Other airports were scattered across LA – all routes not taken in the development of LA’s gargantuan airport.
I’m curious – how do you think air travel in Los Angeles would develop in the next 100 years? Write your thoughts, ideas and hopes in the comments.
Are you curious about some facets of life in Los Angeles? Do you have an urgent question about California? let us know for the chance to have your question answered in story form next.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-14/hate-getting-to-lax-in-an-alternate-reality-you-could-be-catching-flights-in-palmdale Why was LAX airport built far from downtown? We have answers