Previously, I shared my experience travelling by air in the thick of the pandemic. I had transited through Los Angeles Airport (LAX) as part of my journey back home from Vancouver to Singapore. The transit at LAX was one of my most exasperating experience. Hopefully, people can learn from my experience and avoid the hassle I went through!
It was not apparent if we should check out of the terminal when we transit through LAX. As it turned out, it depends on the nature of the trip. I would also share my experience worming through the underground of LAX to go from Terminal 6 to the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
- The Default Process
- Passengers With “Checked Through” Luggage
- To Clear Immigration Or Not To Clear Immigration
- Underpass Between Terminals 4/5/6
- Link Bridge Between Terminal 4 and Tom Bradley International Terminal (Terminal B)
What Makes Los Angeles Airport (LAX) Confusing
Los Angeles Airport (LAX) is a major international transit hub for those looking to cross the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, one would expect it to have rules like that of the usual international aviation hub:
That meant there would be no need to queue up for the long and dreary security screening.
When you transit through it on a single ticket1, you would not need to check out at the airport you are transiting through. Instead, you just proceed straight to the transfer counter, obtain your boarding pass for the next flight, and proceed to the gate. All these while, you would remain in the transit side of the airport.
Even for Singapore’s Changi Airport, where its Terminal 4 is at a remote location from the 3 main terminals, one can take a shuttle bus from the transit area in Terminal 4 to catch their flight in the main terminals, vice versa. In that way, it is still possible for a traveller to catch their next flight that’s departing in 2 hours, since he would be skipping the immigration queues (to enter and to exit Singapore) and security screening queues (to exit Singapore).
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing in LAX. In fact, there’s no such convenience in USA’s airports.
1 Single ticket or single trip means your entire trip was purchased through a single airline’s sale portal, regardless of the number of transit stops or number of airlines you changed. However, if you bought each flight’s ticket on separate times or occasions, it would not be considered as a single ticket. If your multi-stop, multi airline flight is bought through a middle man, like a travel agency, it is not confirmed that yours is a single trip. Make sure to confirm with your travel agent that you do not need to exit the transit area during the trip.
Transiting Through Los Angeles Airport (LAX)
To add to this confusion, I could not find any official documentation on what was the “right” process to transit through LAX. Not while I was transiting through LAX. Not even after that, as I sat comfortably in my room to do research.
The information I got was from anecdotes and interviews with staff in LAX. So here was the culmination of my on site research.
The Default Process
According to seasoned travellers, no matter the origin or destination, whether flying domestic or international, they always had to check out, retrieve their bags and check in for their onward flight.
Because of this, they always packed light for the carry on luggage. This makes it easier to re-pack the luggage to move around during transit.
There is also a need to creative packing for check-in luggage. In this way, it will also be easier to transfer items between the hand carry and check-in luggage during transit.
However, there is an exception to this process.
Passengers With “Checked Through” Luggage
Typically, passengers with a single trip ticket will have their check-in luggage “checked through”. The same goes for tickets for different airlines, but bought on a single ticket1.
Passengers who are not travelling on a single ticket may request for their luggage to be checked through when checking in for the first flight. However, this is not guaranteed, as it depends on the airline’s policies and agreements with the other airlines.
In my case, my trip entire trip from Vancouver to Singapore was done on 2 airlines. The Vancouver to Los Angeles sector was on Air Canada, while I flew Singapore Airlines from Los Angeles to Singapore. I had bought the ticket for the entire trip through Singapore Airlines, therefore, mine was a “single trip ticket”.
When I checked in at Vancouver, I confirmed with the Air Canada staff that my luggage would be checked through. This meant that Air Canada would be responsible for transferring my checked in luggage to the Singapore Airlines flight. In other words, I would not need to retrieve my luggage and check it in for the onward flight.
To Clear Immigration Or Not To Clear Immigration
What was not clear was whether I had to exit the transit area at LAX’s Terminal 6, and check in for my flight at Tom Bradley International Terminal. (Recall at the start I had mentioned that for other non-US international airports, there was no need to exit the transit area)
If I had to exit the transit area, why was there underpass and link bridges connecting all the terminals at the transfer side?
Unfortunately, I could not find any document or any staff who could answer this question.
Other Trivia About Los Angeles Airport You Should Know
Yes, I had stopped a number of staff while I was in LAX to ask them about the right process I should take. However, non of them had any idea.
They had absolutely no problems helping me find my directions. But when I asked if I should check out and then check in for my next flight, they were like: “What is that? / What do you mean by ‘transit’?”
No Information Counter
To make matters worse, there was no Information Counter. One staff told me there was one Information Counter at the public area in Tom Bradley International Terminal. However, in the 5 hours I was roaming the entire airport (transit and public area included), I saw no Information Counter anywhere.
Ironically, in the terminal maps provided by LAX, the legend indicated there was “Info”. However, that icon was not found anywhere in the maps itself. The communications team in the airport really need to buck up!
No Transfer Desk
Similarly, there was no transfer desk like that found in other major aviation hubs. It was from there I inferred that it was most likely I had to exit and check in again.
I said “most likely”, because theoretically, I could check in online and get my boarding pass on my mobile phone.
Again, this was something that I could not find a clear answer to.
However, my conclusion from the 3 observations above was that: You are on your own when you enter the transit area of any US airports.
It was no wonder someone managed to get stuck there for 20 odd years!
Canadians Are Pre-Cleared
Of course, not everyone at LAX was hopeless. One staff actually answered one question that bugged me from the time I exited the transit area at Terminal 6: “Why didn’t I clear the immigration to enter USA?”
As it turned out, passengers whose flights originated from Canada were pre-cleared to enter USA. Therefore, I could enter USA as though I had travelled on a domestic flight.
How To Travel Between Terminals 4/5/6 and Tom Bradley International Terminal
I mentioned earlier that the Terminals 4 to 6 were connected by an underpass in the transit area. There is also a link bridge betweeen Terminal 4 and Tom Bradley International Terminal. Therefore, it is possible to transfer from Terminals 4/5/6 to catch international flights without exiting the transit area.
Underpass Between Terminals 4/5/6
Here is a photo gallery of my walk in the underpass from Terminal 6 to Terminal 4.
I emerged from the underpass at one end of Terminal 4. The link bridge to Tom Bradley International Terminal is on the other end of Terminal 4, right beside the TSA.
Therefore, do not be overwhelmed by the crowd when exiting the quiet underpass. Just stop and find your bearings. Walk towards the TSA. When you reach the crowd near the TSA, look for the sign and escalator up to the link bridge.
Link Bridge Between Terminal 4 and Tom Bradley International Terminal (Terminal B)
After stepping off the escalator, it was a direct route to Tom Bradely International Terminal’s departure transit area.
Here’s the photo gallery of how I got to Tom Bradley International Terminal from Terminal 4 on the link bridge.
Situation At Los Angeles Airport (LAX) During Pandemic
Although I mentioned that there was a crowd at Terminal 4, it was just that. Compared to Terminal 5 and 6, which was dead quiet and half lit, Terminal 4 was very much alive. However, it was not shoulder-to-shoulder bustling.
Tom Bradley International Terminal was quiet when I went to recce about 6 hours before my flight. Come 7pm, it became filled to the brim with passengers waiting to check in for flights that were departing from 10pm onwards. That being said, the crowd dispersed after clearing the security screening, with most of the crowd gathering at Panda Express – the only food outlet offering proper meals.
I had gone into details about my observation of LAX during pandemic in my earlier post, “Flying During Pandemic”.
You can laugh at me for being too pampered by Asian aviation hubs, but hubs like Singapore Changi Airport and Tokyo Narita Airport are being held as benchmarks for a reason. Instead of falling short of being a good aviation hub, LAX seemed to be doing the opposite.
For example, I cannot fathom why passengers on single trip tickets still had to pass exit and re-enter the transit area, even though their luggage had been checked through. Not only was this an added red tape, it poses an additional security risk.
Los Angeles International Airport is confusing also because they literally left passengers to their own fate. There were no Information Counters or staff who were proficient in the proceses mof the airport. They would rather let passengers wander around aimlessly and get stuck, which in turn added another level of security risk.
I mean, would you rather give transit all the information they need to hurry on to their next flight, or have them miss their flights and stay at the airport for another few hours?
Given my experience and observation, I have the same advice as what all my well-travelled friends have.
Never transit through USA if you can help it.
If you are interested in my quarantine experience at the SHN Dedicated Facility, do check out my Instagram. I have been posting irregular updates about my life in a 38 square metres space. You can also read my other travelogues and aviation trip reports in this blog.
Till then, stay wanderlust!