By Jim McLauchlin
Los Angeles. Is. Big. More than 500 square miles big, with city limits that stretch from the neighborhoods of Chatsworth, the boyhood (and adulthood) home of Kevin Spacey, to San Pedro, where approximately 101 percent of all Pacific shipping comes into the country.
L.A.’s signature airport, Los Angeles International, known to practically everyone as LAX, is similarly big – 173 gates, handling 66 million travelers each year. Its recently refurbished Tom Bradley International Terminal can accommodate the biggest of the big planes, has a Sunset Strip of gourmet eateries dishing up everything from caviar and blinis to veggie banh mis, and, hey—are those cranes over there? Yup. An expansion that’ll add more than 1.2 million square feet to the airport is still ongoing!
But is bigger necessarily better? To use the local parlance, “Nah, brah.” LAX is a megalith that requires fortitude, the ability to wait two hours in security lines, and knowledge of that almost-secret passageway between Terminals 4 and 5. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the flat of feet.
Fortunately, there are four other major airports within 50 miles of LAX, and several are actually way better to fly into than LAX, depending on your, as they say, “final destination.” Next time you’re hopping a jet to L.A., go off-piste and consider the region’s “other” airports:
Burbank is a great, easy-access airport served by seven carriers, from megalithic United to tiny SeaPort (the others: Southwest, Delta, Alaska, JetBlue, and US Airways). And did you know: BUR is actually closer to downtown L.A. than LAX.
Number of gates: 14
Major domestic nonstops: Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas, New York (JFK), San Francisco
Major international nonstops: None
Public transport: Amtrak and L.A. Metrolink trains stop right across the street from the airport’s south side, but the big bonus is free on-demand SuperShuttle rides to and from the L.A. Red Line, which puts you right into the L.A. transportation grid.
Most convenient to: Burbank, natch, and the Warner Bros. and Disney Studios headquarters. Also Pasadena, the Rose Bowl, Griffith Park, the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, and even the can-you-believe-there’s-skiing-this-close-to-L.A. Big Bear Lake and Mountain High resorts.
Pros: “We say easy access, easy to use,” says Victor Gill, Burbank Airport’s public-affairs director. “And there are plans to add a second Metrolink stop at the north end to service Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley. I don’t know that there’s a major airport anywhere in the country with two separate train lines running to it.”
Cons: “If a traveler wants non-stops, we don’t have the complete catalog,” Gill adds. “But with our carriers’ travel hubs, we can get people almost anywhere with one stop.”
John Wayne Airport, Orange County (SNA)
The “SNA” stands for Santa Ana, though everybody calls it “John Wayne” or “Orange County.” It’s actually on unincorporated county land bordered by Irvine, Costa Mesa, and Newport Beach. Nine carriers (Alaska, American, Delta, Delta Connection, Frontier, Southwest, United, US Airways, and WestJet) fly in and out.
Number of gates: 22
Major domestic nonstops: Atlanta, Chicago (both O’Hare and Midway), Dallas, Newark, San Francisco, Seattle
Major international nonstops: Vancouver, Mexico City, Cabo san Lucas
Public transport: It’s the OC. Everyone has a car. What’s your excuse? However, if you insist on playing the sustainability card, Orange County Transportation Authority and Irvine I-Shuttle buses can get you where you need to go (though not very well).
Most convenient to: The “Silicon Valley South” corporate HQs in Costa Mesa and Irvine, and the super-posh beaches of Laguna and Newport Beach. The crazy-high-end South Coast Plaza shopping center is a stone’s throw away, and John Wayne is the closest airport to California’s No. 1 travel destination, Disneyland.
Pros: “The word we use is ‘convenience,’ says SNA’s PR manager, Jenny Wedge. “You can park on-site next to the terminal, and our security lines take about 10 minutes on average.”
Cons: “We wish we could have more nonstops,” Wedge says. “We know that’s important to many travelers. We’re adding more, including more international nonstops, soon.”
The east, east, far-east suburbs of L.A. are known as the “Inland Empire,” because realtors thinks that sounds better than “east, east, far-east suburbs of L.A.” Ontario is the IE’s airport, close to Riverside and San Bernardino. Eight carriers (AeroMexico, Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest, United, US Airways, and Volaris) fly in and out.
Number of gates: 28
Major domestic nonstops: Chicago Midway, Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Las Vegas, Seattle
Major international nonstops: Guadalajara
Public transport: Good luck. Metrolink trains will get you within two miles, but you have to cab or Uber it from there.
Most convenient to: The Ontario Mills Mall is one of the country’s biggest shopping malls. For you pony-players, ONT is also closest to the major thoroughbred action of the Santa Anita racetrack. It’s 35 minutes to Anaheim, and convenient to Big Bear Lake and Mountain High.
Pros: “We’re not a crowded airport,” says Maria Tesoro, ONT’s PR manager. “Most the time, check-in lines and security lines are short. And you can always walk directly to the terminal from parking.”
Cons: “Based on passenger comments, our concessions are a bit limited,” Tesoro says. “We need more options and longer hours for food choices.”
Long Beach Airport (LGB)
Long Beach mixes the old and the new like no other airport, with an iconic 1940s-era terminal flanked by a spankin’-new concourse that features outdoor dining including a wine bar with a firepit. Three carriers (Delta, US Airways, JetBlue) fly to 11 destinations.
Number of gates: 11
Major domestic nonstops: Boston, New York (JFK), Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas
Major international nonstops: None
Public transport: Long Beach Transit buses operate out of the airport, with connections to LA Metro.
Most convenient to: Long Beach, which is hardly a suburb – not with its population of 450,000, and a downtown that’s shockingly hip and currently enjoying a major renaissance. The Aquarium of the Pacific and the Queen Mary are downtown highlights, and the airport is also very close to Disneyland and all points in Orange County.
Pros: Tired of the $7 Big Mac? At LGB you actually won’t get scalped with airport prices for food! The airport’s groundbreaking food-and-beverage program features an eclectic mix of favorite local restaurants with the same menu pricing as their brick-and-mortar locations throughout the city!
Cons: Nothing international, though Cassie Perez-Harmison tells us that, “The City of Long Beach officials are in the very early stage of discussions to explore the possibility of offering international flights in the future.”
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