LOS ANGELES (AP).- Believe it or not, LAX and its iconic spider-shaped terminal were once young and vibrant, a futuristic outpost at the edge of the Pacific in the glamorous Jet Age.
After a half-century and millions of travelers, Los Angeles International Airport is on the verge of reclaiming some of its lost luster and gaining a touch of the 21st century a renovated landmark terminal, shorter check-in times and better restaurants.
"We haven't given them an experience worthy of a first-class city," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said recently,
Painters are putting the finishing touches on the Theme Building's soaring arches, which were shrouded in scaffolding for three years after a 1,000-pound chunk of stucco fell onto the roof of the flying-saucer-shaped Encounter restaurant below.
The $9 million project to restore and strengthen the structure is one of several projects under way here.
For passengers, the renovations are a long time coming. They ranked LAX, the world's sixth-busiest airport, near the bottom in a recent survey of U.S. airports, citing crowded old terminals and poor food and retail options.
"This used to look like a Third World airport," said Steve Judge, after returning from a trip to Mexico.
The city airport department poured in $737 million to upgrade the Tom Bradley International Terminal, which processed 8 million passengers last year but hadn't had a major overhaul since it opened for the 1984 Olympics.
The changes were sorely needed for a terminal that still buses passengers from the tarmac due to a shortage of gates.
Improvements include a high-tech baggage screening system to eliminate long lines at check-in, new boarding gates to accommodate the next generation of bigger jumbo jets, more efficient baggage carousels, new flooring and art installations.
Upgrades were also made to the food court and arrival area. Instead of walking out of customs to a dimly lit lobby, visitors are greeted by translucent walls that change color. A glowing halo hanging from the ceiling welcomes travelers to the City of Angels.
"It's friendlier, more airy, more spacious, brighter," said Claudia Braendle of the renovated terminal, as she waited for a flight home to Zurich, Switzerland. "The check-in process is more efficient."
The renovation is the first step toward a grander, $1.5 billion construction project to expand the international terminal by a million square feet. The project is so huge that airport planners will have to tear down $100 million worth of recently renovated gates for it.
Airport officials said the two projects were planned separately, and the gate renovations were under way when the expansion project was approved. An engineering analysis found it would be cheaper to demolish the gates and rebuild them farther out than to make additional retrofits and seismic upgrades, said Roger Johnson, executive director for airport development.
Meanwhile, officials are considering new bids to replace some of the fast-food restaurants at domestic terminals with fare from some of the city's most popular restaurants. They include coffee from the hip LAMILL cafe, Korean barbecue, tacos from the chefs behind the Border Grill restaurants and Italian snacks from chef Nancy Silverton.
Silverton, who started La Brea Bakery, Campanile and Mozza Pizzeria, said she never eats at LAX because of the dismal food options.
"LA isn't represented in any of the terminals and that's a shame because we have a lot to offer," she said. "When visitors are in LA, whether they're coming or about to leave, their first and last impression of the city is at the airport."
Completion of the Theme Building's face-lift should help. The building opened in 1961, when air travel quickly became part of the identity of the burgeoning Pacific Rim metropolis.
The Encounter restaurant serves as a reminder of that period. The elevator ride up to Encounter starts with the theme from the original "Star Trek" television series; Disney "Imagineers" designed the restaurant's retro interior.
The observation deck above, which was a popular hangout for aviation buffs before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks forced its closure, will soon reopen, with weekend hours and new security measures, an airport spokeswoman said.
"The Theme Building truly is an icon of Los Angeles," said Linda Dishman, executive director of Los Angeles Conservancy, a historic preservation group. "It symbolizes the promise and futurism of the Jet Age, as well as L.A.'s emergence as a world city in the 1960s."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.