The agony of LAX and SoCal

Regarding a recent trip to Los Angeles I extolled the unexpected pleasure of flying there and the ease of bypassing the hotel front desk, but I left out the torture of having to drive from LAX to Oceanside and back and neglected to detail the misery of dealing with Los Angeles International Airport’s Terminal 3 as I left for home.


My flight had arrived LAX at noon Saturday, but I didn’t get out of the Hertz lot until 1:00 PM due to long queues at all four Hertz exit gates. The fellow manning my gate apologized and explained how rude many renters were ahead of me “trying to steal gas” by lying about their gas tank levels. I couldn’t get away fast enough.

It was exactly 97 miles from LAX to my destination in Oceanside; however, it took me just over three hours of agonizingly slow driving south on I-405 and I-5 to get there on that Saturday afternoon.

I might have flown instead to San Diego. After all, Oceanside is only 40 miles north of San Diego, but the airfares were 65% higher than to LAX, and the creeping-crawling on I-5 north is just as bad.

Stopped on I-5 crossing Camp Pendleton. At least I had an ocean view.

The slowest stop-and-go traffic was the final 18-19 miles from San Clemente to Oceanside, thanks to I-5 across the Camp Pendleton oceanfront being the sole traffic corridor. The drive is gorgeous in that section because the Interstate hugs the coast, as does the old Santa Fe Railroad corridor (now Amtrak Surfliner commuter rail) between Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT) and San Diego, but the highway congestion is absolutely brutal almost 24/7.

Because of the awful traffic, I was dreading the drive back Sunday afternoon to return my Hertz car. Happily, it took a mere 2 hours and 25 minutes despite a number of stop-and-crawl places and heavy congestion the entire way. God, I hate that drive, one I’ve done many times since my first trip to California in 1964.

Total miles on car, a brand new Chrysler 300S in battleship gray, was 212. Cost with all taxes was $138 for two days. Was shocked a new Chrysler would come without blind spot monitoring, but the backup camera was far and away the clearest, sharpest, brightest I’ve ever seen. The pickup was stupendous, too, and it handled tightly like a Euro car. Comfortable molded seats, which helped my aching pinched nerve. Excellent left and right side visibility made up for the lack of blind spot monitoring. The car was a dream to drive.

However, none of those accolades made up for the agony of the I-5/I-405 traffic.  Thing is, in Southern California there is little alternative to driving.  SoCal is the poster child for suburban living and the joy and freedom of piloting one’s own automobile.  But the dream long ago turned into a nightmare: too many cars, too many people, impossible to build enough roads to keep up.

So why didn’t I take the Amtrak Surfliner commuter rail service?  I studied it hard, but it would have required an Uber from LAX to LAUPT, then wait for the next train, then another Uber from Oceanside rail station to my destination, yet another from there to my overnight accommodation, then another Uber or Lyft back to my Oceanside destination Sunday morning, followed by a ride from there back to the Oceanside rail station, another wait for the next train going north, and finally a Lyft or Uber from LAUPT back to LAX.  That’s six rides to connect to and from the train stations, and a lot of lost time.

Of course driving time was also slow. And more than crawling for three hours to go less than 100 miles, the drive was very stressful both ways.  We went to the moon in six years, but Americans haven’t come up with any real alternative to the freeway in seventy years.


Arriving at LAX Terminal 3 early Monday morning where my Delta flight to RDU was scheduled to depart, bedlam and third world seediness ruled. For reasons no TSA rep could explain, we were not allowed to walk in the ground level door to enter the security screen lines. We were directed upstairs, but the escalator up was broken, and the single tiny elevator was swamped.

Scores of travelers with their giant luggage loads in tow were waiting angrily for the elevator that never came. In frustration we all walked up the broken escalator, which was one-person narrow. It was a slow process. Especially for me with an excruciatingly painful ruptured disk.

At the top of the stairs we were all directed back DOWN another set of stairs to the exact TSA lines at ground level that they wouldn’t allow us to enter at ground level. It was nuts. I asked a senior TSA supervisor to explain the security rationale, and he just laughed and shook his head, telling me candidly it made no sense whatsoever, and he could not understand why we were not allowed in at ground level if we had boarding passes.

I cleared the TSA PRE line in no time, but my back was now sore as hell from dragging my bag up the broken escalator. Then the dismal long tunnel walk to the center of Terminal 3 and up a working (thank God!) escalator to the even more dismal, worn-out confines of Terminal 3 gates, absolutely wall-to-wall with travelers.

I remember the same broken-down Terminal 3 almost two years ago when I came through with my family returning from Rarotanga. We flew RDU/LAX on Delta, then Air NZ. Delta assured me two years ago that they were in the midst of a massive rebuild of Terminals 2 and 3, and that by Jan, 2020 it would be a magnificent experience. Well, not much appears to have happened in two years to make T3 anywhere near the splendid palace of flying described to me then. It is instead a canker of ugliness and inefficiency, as bad as the LGA environment I blogged about last summer. Every Delta manager here should be sent to work the ramp during mid-summer at Columbia, South Carolina.

The icing on the cake was having to haul my bag up more stairs to the makeshift, tiny SkyClub, swamped with members seeking refuge from the madding crowds below. No escalator. A sign claimed an elevator was available on the opposite side of the food court, but I gave up after searching, but not finding, it and slowly, one step at the time, climbed the staircase.

What an altogether poor flying experience for travelers. If I was in Sofia, Bulgaria or Dakar, Senegal, maybe this would he understandable, but in Los Angeles, USA, definitely not.

I take that back about Dakar Airport. I recently saw an online YouTube video of a flying experience from Dakar, and the airport sparkles with modernity and apparent efficiency, mocking and shaming LAX Terminal 3 and Delta.

Can this really be America? Have we normalized human misery and shabbiness as to be expected at America’s busiest airports? What is wrong with us?

One thought on “The agony of LAX and SoCal

  1. Hello William, I enjoyed your article on LAX and shared it with my son who lives in San Diego. He commutes via Amtrak from San Diego to Ventura several times a month and flys a lot out of San Diego and sometimes LAX.
    Here are his comments on your thoughts for what its worth, Mark Snyder Geneva, Illinois
    “Interesting. One thing he got wrong is there is a bus connection from LAX airport to Union Station (Flyaway) that runs every 30 minutes. Another thing is that Oceanside is arguably one of the better connected transportation cities in SoCal. There is both Metrolink and Amtrak service from LA and Coaster, Sprinter, and Amtrak train service within SD county”

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