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Riding the Freeway in the Sky : L.A.-San Francisco Air Corridor Has Become World's Busiest--and a Key Part of California Life

September 06, 1987|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

It was just after 6 a.m. one recent Friday. PSA flight attendants Doreen Kamifuji and Chris Cramer were in the passenger cabin for Flight 1753 from Los Angeles International to San Francisco, preparing for their first onslaught of the day.

Their airplane, number N353PS, is an 83-passenger BAe-146. It is slow, noisy on the inside and more than a little cramped and claustrophobic, its detractors say. But it's quiet on takeoff and landing, easy on fuel and comparatively reliable in a clutch situation.

In short, it possesses many of the attributes you might look for in a car for freeway commuting. The comparison is not inappropriate: N353PS is such a vehicle.

Its roadway, complete with the equivalent of on-ramps and off-ramps for airports, stretches from the Los Angeles Basin to the San Francisco Bay Area, a freeway so intrinsically a part of California transportation that its users give it and its complexities about as much thought as they do the concrete pathways on the ground.

Without discrimination, it accommodates business deals and football weekends, romance and grief. Its passengers grumble if they are late--and they often are. They lament the lack of hot meals, rue the crowds and complain about anything they can, sometimes with considerable justification. But they always come back.

Which is partly why this freeway in the sky is so jammed it makes the more widely known air-travel corridor linking New York and Washington seem like a country highway on a Sunday afternoon. There is no busier air corridor in the world.

On this particular Friday, Linda Zimbelman, a Torrance therapist on her way to testify before a congressional committee hearing in San Francisco, is the first of 55 passengers aboard N353PS.

Settling into a window seat in the first row, she carries a pumpernickel bagel to munch with her coffee and worries more than anything that a delay will make her late. "I don't want a hassle," she said. "And later on today, I want to get on a plane and get home to bed."

Ninety minutes later, coming back south as Flight 632 from San Francisco to Long Beach, the plane would have among its 65 passengers Cindy Stevenson, a San Francisco operating room technician and her friend, Catherine McConkie, a respiratory therapist.

Both order a Bloody Mary and toast the arrival of the weekend. For Stevenson, the corridor is a pathway to romance. She had met Les Silversmith, a Seal Beach hairdresser, at a Bay Area party a few weeks before. Now he flies the corridor north and she flies south on alternate weekends. McConkie was along for the ride, looking for some sun.

In the 12 months that ended in the middle of last year--the latest period for which figures are available--8.7 million passengers traveled the corridor, compared to the 5.1 million that flew New York and Washington and 4.9 million on the New York-Boston run. A Federal Aviation Administration computer survey found that on Aug. 18, for example, 233 flights left Los Angeles for San Francisco, compared with only 132 Washington departures to New York.

There is no written history about the Golden State corridor, but when PSA first started flying it in 1958, the airline had just finished a year in which it carried 256,454 passengers in its fleet of four planes. PSA, a spokesman recalled, was strongly advised by other carriers not to get into the corridor because it was thought to be already saturated in terms of customer demand. By 1977, the carrier hauled 7.2 million passengers in 35 aircraft and, in 1986, 10.7 million people in 55 planes.

There are differences between this and other freeways, of course. Because this freeway exists at altitudes of 10,000-31,000 feet, the speed limit is between 450 m.p.h. and 500 m.p.h.

And there are similarities. There is a daily rush hour, in fact, several--spaced from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.--to account for the influxes and exoduses of traffic in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas that have nothing to do with the corridor commute traffic. The 7-to-8:30 a.m. and 5-to-7 p.m. rush hours combine with jams from 10 a.m. to noon, 2 to 3 p.m. and 8:30 to 10 p.m.

Just like the roads, the sky freeway is congested all day Friday, and Sunday afternoon and evening are very busy.

In the early 1970s, corridor one-way fares were as low as $15 during commute hours and PSA even sold books of tickets very much like those used by East Coast train commuters. The economics are more breathtaking now. The full, round-trip coach fare is $248, with advance-purchase discounts cutting it to $108. PSA's "midnight flyer," one no-reservation flight in each direction about midnight, is $44, up from the $10 it cost in 1970.

Like the freeway system, the corridor began to form in the 1950s, matured in the 1960s and in the 1970s and 80s has faced the pressures of growth and containment, simultaneously.

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