I’m Palmdale, Fly Me

Los Angeles is now on its fourth attempt to expand and modernize Los Angeles International Airport to accomodate the surging traffic in air passengers and cargo–especially international–that wants access to one of the world’s largest concentrations of people. Beginning in about 1998, a fantasy element started to creep into how city officials discussed this project. Instead of simply making LAX bigger and more convenient, they said we’re going to upgrade it somewhat but also pursue “a regional approach.” 

What this means is, assume the growth in traffic predicted for LAX is like the contents of a pinata. Break it open, and let all the kids share.  Give some of it to Palmdale, some of it to Ontario, some of it to Long Beach, some of it to John Wayne, and some of it to a new commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine Base.

This strategy defies how the commercial air business works.  You can’t just assign it where you’d like it to go.

Ontario is a successful, growing airport, but it still fails to deliver international service. Long Beach is in a great location, but its neighbors have gotten that city to constrain it.  Ditto John Wayne. The notion of turning El Toro into a commercial airport tore Orange County apart politically, and the idea is now pretty decisively dead.

That leaves Palmdale Regional Airport, a massive, 5800-acre piece of property in the Mojave Desert, purchased by the City of Los Angeles because back in the 1960s, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) predicted (prayed?) northern LA County’s population was where would grow. That population would be serviced by “Palmdale Intercontinental Airport.”

SCAG still thinks Palmdale will handle 12.8 million passengers per year in 25 years.  But today, one airline runs flights out of Palmdale, Scenic Airlines. It has one route, to North Las Vegas. And, according to news reports, Scenic is about to pull the plug:

Scenic was the first company to fly out of Palmdale Regional since April 1998, when United Express ended five years of shuttling people from Palmdale to connecting flights at Los Angeles International Airport.

Aaron A. Goerlich, an attorney representing Scenic Airlines, filed a 90-day notice of the company’s intention to terminate service with the U.S. Department of Transportation on Dec. 13, records show.

Paul Haney, spokesman for Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which owns Palmdale Regional, said agency officials “are disappointed” with Scenic’s filing.

“We hope (Scenic) will change its plans before service ends. We believe the Antelope Valley is a growing and attractive market for airline service,” Haney said.

Palmdale Regional “will play a crucial role in the regional solution to accommodate the growing demand for air service in Southern California,” he said.

To meet that demand, “We will intensify marketing efforts and explore new ways to make the business case for airlines to schedule flights there, particularly regional jet service that would link Palmdale with major airline hubs,” Haney said. 

Mitzi Daines, Scenic’s director of business development, said the reason for ending service was a shortage of passengers.

Mr. Haney’s talking point about a “regional solution” is really all about LAWA someday getting permission to do what must be done to LAX. The more LAWA acts like they’re serious about developing Palmdale into a big, successful airport that will divert traffic from LAX, the better the politics becomes for the needed LAX expansion. That’s been the theory; I’m skeptical. The airlines don’t believe there’s a market in Palmdale that they can’t more profitably serve at LAX or Ontario. LA County residents outside of the Antelope Valley think Palmdale’s too far away. 

Nonetheless, the city family continues to talk like Palmdale will eventually become a major airport, and plans to spend a lot of money (from where?) on more roads and mass transit to make Palmdale seem closer:

“This is a symptom of the past, not of the future,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX and who is working to find a way to distribute flights around the region.

“We need to do more with Palmdale to make it more attractive.”

When I worked in City Hall, I used to say you had to live the life span of Methuselah to see anything finished. Seeing Palmdale become a major airport will test even those limits.

As a PR consultant, I was part of the LAX Master Plan team from 1994-98. The rationale for the project was one thing: Demand. The community acted as if the people who ran LAX were a bunch of greedy developers, when in fact they were essentially just traffic engineers saying “here’s what’s coming.” Los Angeles was the nation’s international hub. What Dallas-Ft. Worth is to American Airlines, LAX is to many foreign carriers from Asia, the Pacific Islands region, Latin America and Australia/New Zealand.

At some point. the inability to grow LAX to meet demand will cause that demand to shift elsewhere.  I’d love to see an update of the demand forecast we used in the 90s. I suspect it will show traffic already adjusting to the political realities of Los Angeles–not by moving to Palmdale, but by moving to Dallas, Denver, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Phoenix.

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