The greatly enlarged Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is finally coming in for a smooth landing - and just in the nick of time. In 1984 this city hosts the XXIII summer Olympics which is expected to bring in an additional 250, 000 to 300,000 people over a six-week period.
The expansion is long overdue, according to airport officials, who point out that in 1961 the airport handled only 6.9 million passengers. Then, with the switchover to jets, volume over the next 10 years nearly tripled. Another decade brought 12 million more passengers - now 33 million a year.
Los Angeles is the world's third-busiest airport, but, says general manager Clifton A. Moore, it is the busiest in terms of ground traffic. In size, it is a little more than twice as large as Boston's Logan Airport and three times the size of Houston's airport. ''This airport is truly married to the community,'' Mr. Moore states, pointing out that while half of all travelers through Chicago's O'Hare Airport actually leave the facility, and 25 percent do so in Atlanta, 80 percent drive away from LAX.
Robert Bloom, a West Coast supervisor with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), says considerable progress already has been made in meeting the airport's severe ground traffic problems.
In an effort to ease traffic congestion, the airport is doubling the curb space in front of terminals by adding a second level. This will increase road capacity from 4,000 cars to 6,300 an hour. More centrally located parking lots will also help traffic flow.
''There's no question it is cutting the time needed to get through the airport,'' notes the FAA's Mr. Bloom.
Reconstruction was set to begin more than 10 years ago when wide-body planes, with their increased passenger capacity became more prevalent, says Moore. Completion of an environmental-impact statement delayed the project till 1979.
A main delaying factor, Mr. Bloom points out, was the reconstruction of a tunnel on the south runway so as to balance takeoffs and landings between the north and south sides of the airport.
Attention has also focused on the airport's international facility, which has had ''wall to wall'' people at certain peak times. Many of the complaints in the past have concerned delays in customs and lack of space.
Over the past five years, the number of international travelers arriving in Los Angeles has tripled. Thus, the decision was made to build a $123 million, 963,000-square-foot terminal, which will encompass two-thirds of the total area of existing LAX terminals.
Another problem was noise. Now, ''80 percent of our facility meets federal noise regulations,'' Moore asserts. ''We've moved the noisier aircraft out of the fleet by given deadlines, and we've also bought 2,600 homes in affected areas.'' The airport paid $150 million to soundproof nearby schools.
Although considerable work remains to be done by the deadline next July, Mr. Moore says the areas that most affect passengers are complete.