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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, cloistered nuns revealed.

But first, many travelers to Los Angeles find that the city's international airport is in need of an extreme makeover. A British news agency recently put LAX on its list of the world's 10 worst airports.

As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, it's not what people expect when they visit America's glamour capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Here at terminal three at LAX, there's a small newsstand, a couple of fast food restaurants, but mostly there are a lot of people just sitting around with nothing much to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMIN' INTO LOS ANGELES")

DEL BARCO: The other day, musician Tony Parker was so bored waiting for his flight that he pulled out his guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: (Singing) Comin' into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys. Don't touch my bags, if you please, Mister Customs Man.

DEL BARCO: Parker wonders why a town that's so tied to Hollywood has an airport so lacking in pizzazz.

SIMON: Maybe there could be a show business motif, like a big mural of Marilyn Monroe or James Dean or something - something to show we're Hollywood means.

DEL BARCO: LAX has been in plenty of movies and TV shows, but there's nothing glitzy about seven grim terminals that long ago started to look thread bare.

What do passengers think? We asked John Brown(ph), Steve Rally(ph) and Bell Lagman(ph) to name a few.

SIMON: It's not that terribly sexy.

SIMON: It's a throwback to the '70s.

SIMON: It could use a facelift, you know, a new coat of paint or something, yeah. It looks kind of dreary already.

DEL BARCO: Sixty-one million passengers come through LAX every year, and some of those we spoke with said they'd love to see some frills, like chair massages, a movie theater, a video arcade, music-listening stations - something besides the uninviting, stark, concrete walls.

Even one of LAX's top executives, Jim Ritchie, agrees it lacks charm.

SIMON: No, I would not say it's a first-class airport; in fact, take a look how we're ranked. We're not ranked very well because if you go to Seoul, Korea, Beijing, anywhere in Japan, you go to Singapore, Europe, throughout the United States - Dallas, Atlanta, JFK - you will find - and I, you know, I regret to report this - that we are behind everybody else.

DEL BARCO: Behind, Ritchie says, was outmoded design and aging infrastructure. The terminals are so cramped with baggage-screening devices, passengers sometimes have to line up outside along the curb; much of the plumbing and ventilation has seen better days; plus, LAX isn't ready to fully accommodate the new giant Airbus 380, which is too big for the runways and gates; add to that the occasional mishaps that plague LAX.

SIMON: We have, unfortunately, over the years, been ranked number one, two or three in runway incursions, a situation where airplanes have a near-miss on the ground or whether it's an airplane and a baggage clerk or whatever, we, n the north runway, have had - it was 1991, I think, we had a tragic mid-air collision.

DEL BARCO: Ritchie says, over the next decade, LAX will spend $4 billion to $6 billion to widen the runways, add new eco-friendly terminals and gates, new parking structures, and people movers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)

DEL BARCO: Construction crews are already sprucing up the customs area at the international terminal; when they finish next year, there will be new lights and new baggage carousels - welcome news since one customs official was recently quoted saying the place is dungeon-like and depressing. On the brighter side is LAX's landmark restaurant Encounters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENCOUNTERS' ELEVATOR THEME MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: Its elevator has its own theme music, and it's housed in a building that looks like a space station from a kitchy 1960s sci-fi movie. But even the restaurant has had a close encounter. Airport executive Ritchie says earlier this year, a thousand-pound piece of stucco fell from one of the restaurants corroded arches.

SIMON: It's indicative of our neglect over time of not modernizing all the time. We have a lot to catch up on.

DEL BARCO: Today, scaffolding covers the building as workers retrofit and replace the steel skeleton. The restaurant was closed for months, but Encounters is back in business now, offering a killer view of the entire airport.

Manager Kenneth Merritt says travelers can again enjoy the iconic restaurant's interior designed by Disney.

SIMON: Well, it's all like a Jetson-type style, '60s, you know, the big psychedelic lava lamp...

DEL BARCO: Space age.

SIMON: Yeah, space - like you're in the Mother Ship, but it's not really going anywhere.

DEL BARCO: As for the rest of LAX, so what if it needs a makeover? In this town, that's to be expected.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

SIMON: And you can hear more of that 1971 song, "L.A. International Airport," at our Web site, npr.org.

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