LA airport responds that transfer is part of modernization plan
PHILIPPINE Airlines (PAL) announced that it will be “forced” to move to a newly built facility at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on June 1, despite raising concerns for its passengers, who are predominantly elderly or those with disabilities.
Following the recent mandate of the Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), PAL’s flights departing from and arriving in Los Angeles will be transferred to the Midfield Satellite Concourse (MSC), which is known as the West Gates at the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT).
The newly built concourse is separate but is connected to the main international terminal by an underground tunnel.
In an advisory dated Friday, May 21, the airline told passengers to allot an additional 20 minutes to walk to departure gates, adding that there will be terminal transfer vehicles similar to golf carts available to those unable to walk the full distance.
“Please allot extra time in case of limited availability of these transfer vehicles. Passengers using wheelchairs will also need to take the elevators,” it said.
“We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience that the Airport’s decision may cause you,” the flag carrier said.
The airline said it is appealing to the airport authority to reconsider the decision. Airline officials have reportedly also reached out to city officials for support of its request to stay at the main international terminal.
“We will continue to pursue all available remedies in the hope that our flights will be retained at the original gates of the main terminal TBIT concourse for the well-being and convenience of our valued passengers,” the advisory said.
PAL, which has been flying to California since 1946, ranked fourth-largest among Asian carriers operating at TBIT, and 15th among all international carriers between mid-2019 and 2020.
The airline asserted its positioning as the biggest customer of wheelchairs at LAX, with 3,300 average per month in 2019. Per one-way flight, as many as 80 passengers could require wheelchair assistance, PAL added.
“These older passengers will have to queue to use elevators and a limited number of ‘terminal transport vehicles’ – solely to access a remote concourse that offers no shops or food services other than vending machines and food delivery while they wait for flight boarding,” Gilbert Santa Maria, PAL’s president and chief operating officer, said in a letter addressed to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti.
With news of PAL’s move reaching the public, several Fil-Am community members and organizations have begun expressing concerns about the move and are writing letters to the Mayor’s Office and councilmembers to help defer LAWA’s decision.
In one letter sent to the Asian Journal, Justice for Filipino American Veterans (JFAV) addressed its concerns to Garcetti, stressing that the move will affect wheelchair-using passengers and ambulatory elders the most.
“Our wheelchair passengers and ambulatory elderly will have a more difficult time and LAWA seems to not care. LAWA reports to the LA Mayor’s office. For us, this is a grave case of discrimination against us, Filipino Americans in your city,” wrote Arturo Garcia, JFAV national coordinator.
In response to concerns coming from PAL and the greater Fil-Am community, LAWA maintained that it values its relationship with both the airline and Filipino travelers.
“Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) strongly values its longstanding relationship with Philippine Airlines and the Filipino residents of and visitors to Los Angeles, and we look forward to providing an outstanding guest experience for Philippine Airlines passengers at LAX for many years to come,” the airport authority told the Asian Journal in a statement.
A LAWA official told the Asian Journal that due to the “huge demand on [LAX] facilities,” airlines like Philippine Airlines (PAL) have had to operate out of remote gates, meaning arriving passengers would then have to be transported on shuttles to the main international terminal before making their way through immigration and baggage claim.
However, a senior PAL official told the Asian Journal that LAWA had assigned the airline to remote gates back then because flights had delayed departures from Manila due to ongoing repairs at Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
LAWA began an analysis of how to “operate in the most optimal fashion,” an airport official told the Asian Journal, back in the summer of 2018 and factored in which airlines would be moved to the new concourse to avoid using remote gates.
Through the multi-billion dollar modernization program, the West Gates seek to address the demand and reduce the reliance on the remote gates with 15 new gates at the concourse. The concourse will feature other upgraded amenities, such as more seating while waiting, ultimately over two dozen food and retail offerings, and automated boarding gates, according to LAX’s website.
In 2018, LAWA said it announced that PAL would be one of the airlines in the move. VivaAerobus, Sun Country, Volaris and Allegiant are among the first carriers that began operating from the new concourse in May, while Frontier Airlines will be shifting there in the coming weeks.
A number of domestic and international airlines — including Hawaiian Airlines, Air Tahiti, Fiji Airways, El Al and Air France-KLM — will be transferred to the West Gates later this year, LAWA told the Asian Journal.
Despite the new gate, the LAWA official assured that “it will still be a very similar experience” as departing passengers will continue to check in at the same PAL ticketing counter and go through security screening at TBIT. Meanwhile, those arriving will still pick up their bags at the same baggage claim and go through the usual motions of immigration and customs at the international terminal.
The airport authority rebuked allegations that it singled out PAL among the other Asian airlines and said it looked at “a whole range of factors,” including whether carriers were in an alliance but in some instances were “not able to keep alliances together.” (A PAL official told the Asian Journal that the airline was reportedly not formally notified of the transfer until May 7, 2021.)
LAWA said there reportedly would be no additional charges from the wheelchair provider when PAL operates out of the West Gates and that there will be options for those who require assistance traveling to and from the gate.
“This new facility is connected with the Tom Bradley terminal via a pedestrian tunnel that provides direct access to the new gate areas. In addition to moving walkways and standard guest transportation services that the airlines provide for passengers who need special accommodations, the airport also has launched a new courtesy shuttle that provides electric carts to guests who choose to ride rather than use the moving walkways or walk,” LAWA said in its statement to the Asian Journal.
LAWA said that it has “made adjustments along the way” based on feedback from travelers and is “committed to constant improvement.”
PAL assured the community and passengers that it will notify them if any developments unfold before the June 1 transfer.