During air travel’s “golden age,” passengers flew in style — sitting in large, comfortable seats, eating gourmet food, and drinking custom cocktails while they relaxed on the way to their final destination.
All of that changed with the passing of the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978. Carriers were finally free to choose their own routes and set competitive ticket prices. It was the last nail in the coffin of air travel’s “golden age,” flooding airports with a record-breaking number of passengers.
As air travel suddenly became more affordable and accessible to the common man, photographer and director John Brian King was living near Los Angeles International Airport and experimenting with documentary photography. He captured the airport’s arriving passengers in the early ’80s, which he has compiled in a new book, LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84.
King was drawn to the chaos that airports naturally create. “People are in an unusual state [at the airport]. They have just woken up after flying for ten hours, lost their luggage, or are waiting for a loved one. I enjoyed photographing people in this state against a backdrop of government-architectural dystopia, which was LAX in the early 1980s,” he told Business Insider.
Airline deregulation led to the creation of a 'hub-and-spoke system' which aimed to maximise aircraft use and increase the passenger load for each flight. Commercial airlines designated certain major airports as their 'hub,' making them a connection point to lesser-frequented airports known as the 'spokes.' Today, LAX is a hub for five airlines: American, United, Alaska Airlines, Great Lakes Airlines, and Virgin America.
During the decade that followed, oil prices dropped by 60%, and ticket prices dropped -- both of which led to more travellers choosing to fly rather than drive to their destinations.
In 1980, LAX accommodated 74% of the passenger traffic that arrived in southern California on domestic flights. There were competing airports in Burbank, San Diego, and Orange County.
Tom Bradley International Terminal was being built in anticipation of the 1984 Olympic Games, which were being hosted in Los Angeles. Thousands of athletes and attendees would arrive through 11 different aircraft gates.
The 'X' in LAX doesn't stand for any particular word. It was added in the 1930s, when all international airports were required to have a three-letter identifier.
The airport was just two miles from where King grew up. 'It was omnipresent in my childhood,' he said.
Luckily, King's candid images didn't upset any of the passengers he observed. 'Unlike now, I think, people were really open to being photographed -- I wouldn't have continued photographing if my subjects were constantly getting upset,' he said.
King was drawn to the 'raw, stripped-down concrete environment' of LAX. As an artist he's interested in 'documenting the absurd nature of humanity and the alienating nature of architecture,' he said.
To achieve the stark look, King used a Minolta 35mm film camera with a 24mm fixed wide-angle lens. 'I shot with a slow shutter speed to capture ambient light, while the flash froze the foreground,' he said.
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