THIS is What’s Wrong with the LA Times

I disagree with Hugh Hewitt, Patterico, Michelle Malkin and other conservative bloggers who say the Los Angeles Times would recover from its circulation woes if its editors took it in a less liberal direction. I don’t think adding more conservatives on the op-ed page or instructing news editors to be friendlier to George W. Bush would add a single subscriber, and might alienate liberals who already believe the news media is over-correcting its past liberal bias to their detriment.

However, I do think the Times needs to stop running articles about industries that its writers obviously know nothing about. Subject-matter ignorance alienates far more readers than political bias, in my opinion.

Today’s example is a story about Mayor Villaraigosa’s press conference at LAX, where he discussed the need for a “regional solution” to the expected doubling of air passenger traffic in Southern California by 2030:

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Tuesday outlined his vision for the region’s air traffic system, calling for airlines to concentrate international flights at LAX while shifting some new domestic travel, particularly short-haul flights, to other airports.

Los Angeles faces many obstacles in clearing its air traffic jams, however. Efforts at regionalizing air transportation already have failed three times in recent years.

Airlines prefer big-city airports, and airport directors cannot force carriers to redistribute flights to airports far from the population concentration in and around Los Angeles.

But at the news Tuesday that a record number of international passengers used Los Angeles International Airport in 2005, Villaraigosa said other airports in Southern California must begin handling some of the increasing demand for air travel.

So far, so good. The Times’s reporters (Jennifer Oldham and Patrick McGreevy) tell us what the mayor is asking for has been asked for before, without success. As a matter of history, Villaraigosa’s two predecessors expended tremendous political capital on losing battles to reconfigure airline traffic at LAX and other airports in just the way Villaraigosa is talking about.

“LAX is the international facility for this region,” Lydia Kennard, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, said Tuesday. “And we are very positive about expanding international service here. But what we are really clear about is that does not mean growth, and we are not promoting growth, in the domestic arena.”

The role of LAX as a hub of international travel was confirmed Tuesday when the city released its passenger counts for 2005 showing record international volume at LAX.

“That’s exactly what we see for our future at LAX — to be the dominant international facility — and other airports need to take up domestic short- and long-haul service,” Kennard said.

This is Ms. Kennard’s second stint at the head of Los Angeles World Airports. She along with all her predecessors and successors since at least the mid-1990s have stood next to Los Angeles elected officials and repeated this strategy.

The story also quotes Westchester-area Councilman Bill Rosendahl, Mark Pisano, long-time executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), and Alan Rothenberg, the president of the city’s Airport Commission, who all endorse the mayor’s regional strategy.

Aren’t you kind of curious by now? If this is such a great idea, and everybody in charge of LAX is behind it, why hasn’t it happened already?

The story gives one, unattributed line to answer this question:

Aviation experts say the city can expect roadblocks ahead, including carriers’ preference for using big-city airports that are patronized by corporate clients.

That’s it? Why might this be? There are corporate offices all over Southern California, only a few of which are near LAX. Are corporate executives all masochists? They like to drive on the 405 and the 10 during peak traffic hours?

The airline/corporation nexus is not the problem, which is why the Times couldn’t find anyone from the airline industry to go on the record saying so.

I’m no “aviation expert” but like almost every other PR person in Los Angeles, I put my time into working for LAX on its Master Plan, and learned a few tidbits. The most relevant piece of information is this: The airlines don’t think you can separate international long-haul flights from short-haul domestic flights — which is the essence of what the mayor wants to do.

As Mayor Villaraigosa says, LAX is an “international hub.” Think about the meaning of those words. A “hub” is an airport where passengers are fed into one location to catch a connecting flight. Not everyone who flies United out of Chicago comes from Chicago. Likewise, not everyone who flies an international carrier out of LAX is from the LA area. They are also from other cities that don’t have the volume of international flights that LAX, uniquely, has.

How do these passengers get to LAX? Via a short-haul or domestic flight. From San Francisco, say. Or Arizona. Maybe even Kansas City or Newark. If you want to go to South Korea, Japan, Australia or Chile from anywhere in North America, there’s a high likelihood you’ll get there via LAX.

The international carriers don’t think they can make money if a significant portion of their market can’t fly into LAX. They believe their passengers won’t like the idea of flying into Ontario or Palmdale, and then taking a shuttle bus to LAX to catch the international flight. They’d have to get their baggage, take a ride that would last two hours easy, and then recheck baggage. No thanks.

Losing that increment of unwilling two-hour shuttle-bus riders can be the difference between a profitable flight and an unprofitable one. The commercial airline business runs on thin margins as it is.

That’s not the only problem. The most popular alternative airports to LAX — Burbank, Long Beach and John Wayne — are all politically constrained by local governments from growing to what their markets would bear. Ontario serves a growing Inland Empire market, but Palmdale has been a bust because it’s too far away, too hard to get too and too hot much of the year (another factor the airlines don’t like.) So if the mayor wants to distribute some of LAX’s demand elsewhere, his choices are extremely limited.

However the mayor shapes the future of LAX — both through policy and its unintended consequences — will make a big difference in the future of Southern California’s economy, which is highly dependent on trade and tourism.

It seems important enough to me that, if I ran the Times, I wouldn’t assign City Hall beat reporters who are more comfortable talking about politics to cover this story. I’d hire someone who’d made a serious study of the airline business.

It would help the mayor — who can’t be expected to know the airline industry along with everything else he needs to know — if the region’s one big newspaper could do better than just adding colorful detail to his own press releases. The Times could add value by enlightening the mayor, other policymakers and voters about these complicated issues. That way, the Times could become a “must-read,” rather than the source of annoyance it is too often today.

It’s not about bias. It’s about facts. The Times doesn’t run enough of them. If it did, more people would buy it, no matter how liberal its editorials are.

UPDATE 2/1/06: On the general subject of the financial health of newspapers, this post on Powerline is worth reading. It links to stories in USA Today and the Financial Times on how newspapers are fighting back. Experimention, but also forcing content aggregators like Google to pay. Hmm.

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