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Palmdale Again Quietly Reaches End of Runway

Aviation: Lack of commercial traffic plagues airport, which was intended to relieve pressure on LAX. It is the second closure since field's opening in 1969.

April 27, 1998|DARRELL SATZMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALMDALE — Until they reached the airport Wednesday, the seven passengers booked on United Express Flight 7358 had no idea they were about to embark on a historic trip.

There was no fanfare, speechmaking, red carpet or complimentary cocktails as the seven boarded the 19-seat Jetstream turboprop. The only indications that anything was special about this short commuter hop to Los Angeles were the signs posted throughout the airport.

"The Palmdale Regional Airport will be closed after April 22, 1998."

Flight 7358 was the last flight out of town.

Ever since the city of Los Angeles purchased almost 18,000 acres of scrubby terrain near this High Desert city in 1969, officials have dreamed of building a major airfield that would help fuel the northern Los Angeles County economy and relieve congestion at other regional airports, especially LAX.

But it was a dream that has not been realized. After opening to commercial traffic in 1971, the Palmdale Airport has been plagued by a lack of interest from airlines and passengers alike.

The Federal Aviation Administration's prediction of almost twice the current level of air traffic in the county by the year 2015, combined with sharp differences at City Hall over multibillion-dollar expansion plans for LAX, have made solving the region's long-term aviation problems a hot-button issue.

Although some Los Angeles civic leaders say an expanded Palmdale Airport is the best option for relieving congestion at Los Angeles International Airport, others argue that Palmdale's remoteness and the airport's current inability to support even one small commercial carrier doom any plans to make it a major transportation hub.

In the meantime, if and when the Palmdale Airport reopens and how it will figure into the region's transportation plans remain very much in doubt.

Bordering the west side of the Los Angeles airport department's expansive desert tract is a 6,000-acre installation known as "Air Force Plant 42." Under an agreement with the Air Force, which had long opposed plans for a giant commercial airport at the site, the city was given use of the runways at Plant 42 for the Palmdale Airport. In return, Los Angeles promised not to build a larger airport there until commercial traffic exhausted the capacity of the existing airport.

Ironically, Plant 42 was once a Los Angeles County airport, acquired in 1947 but sold to the Air Force in 1954.

The goal of a thriving Antelope Valley airport was hampered by competition from other local airports in Ontario and Burbank, as well as a steep downturn in the Antelope Valley's economy due in large part to cutbacks in the aerospace industry.

The economic drought led to the first closure of Palmdale Airport in 1985. In 1990, two new airlines, including United, began operations amid much optimism.

Efforts to improve access to Palmdale, 62 miles from downtown Los Angeles--including a 1990 proposal to build a high-speed magnetic railway between Palmdale Airport and LAX--have gone nowhere.

More recently, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, a vocal opponent of LAX expansion, gave her support to studying the feasibility of two rail systems that would connect the two airports--an extension of Metrolink and a segment of a high-speed statewide rail system.

That both of those projects would surely face formidable political and economic obstacles has not deterred Galanter.

"It would be awhile before those projects became a reality," Galanter said, "but if we sit around and do nothing, it will be even longer before we can fix the problem."

Despite the lack of commercial operators, Los Angeles World Airports, the city's airport department, said it has been turning a small profit from the Palmdale property through lease agreements with aerospace companies and farmers, who grow pistachio nuts, onions and other crops on the site of what was once the city's "airport of the future."

Although the departure of United Express will mean almost $1 million less per year in the department's coffers, this is not likely to put the Palmdale Airport in the red. Figures from the 1996-97 fiscal year show that the airport had revenue of $6,113,000 and operating expenses of $2,408,000.

The latest closure of Palmdale Airport comes as United Airlines is in the process of switching its contract carrier in several western states from Mesa Air Group of New Mexico to Utah-based SkyWest Airlines. SkyWest, which operates 30-seat aircraft, said current passenger levels would have made continuing the operation a money-losing proposition.

Mesa, which took over the United Express service in 1993, had been shuttling passengers between Palmdale and LAX four times a day on 19-seat planes, usually filling only about half the seats.

Los Angeles airport officials say they are looking for new tenants in Palmdale, but they concede doing so could take months or even years.

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