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El Toro Sale Puts Regional Plans in a Fix


The Navy put an end Tuesday to plans for an airport at the former El Toro Marine base in Orange County, forcing regional airport planners to face a cold reality: The numbers don't add up.

Those who favor a regional solution to the growing demand for air travel in Southern California had hoped El Toro would ease the burden on aging Los Angeles International Airport. An El Toro airport could have accommodated up to 30 million passengers by 2025. With that option gone, Southern California aviation planners must redistribute the load among the region's other major airports.

One likely impact, officials said, will be pressure to ease traffic restrictions at Orange County's John Wayne International Airport.

Redistributing the air traffic load presents a significant problem: Most of the region's facilities have limitations--ranging from air quality to federal restrictions to local opposition--that hinder their growth. If aviation planners can't overcome the hurdles, experts agree the region could lose valuable international air service to other states.

The Navy announced Tuesday that it will retain the option of selling all or part of the former Marine base but leave the ultimate decision on how the property is developed to local officials.

That puts even more focus on last year's 25-year forecast for regional airport growth, compiled by the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which attempted to spread 167 million annual passengers among 11 regional airports. Despite a drop in traffic after Sept. 11, forecasters agree growth will resume next year. But all the airports face major challenges to expansion.

Not the least of these is Los Angeles International Airport, which served 50% more passengers last year than it was designed to handle. Mayor James K. Hahn has proposed capping the airport at 78 million passengers per year--a plan that many say isn't likely to hold up because the airlines control service at the world's third-busiest airport.

"For airlines like United and American there's a good percentage of their passengers that go into Los Angeles and connect to somewhere else," said Michael Boyd, who heads the Boyd group, an aviation consulting firm. "If you spread it out it means the airlines will start to go elsewhere."

This is precisely what Hahn hopes to do. The mayor has proposed redistributing passenger growth that would have gone to El Toro among the region's other airports, such as Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino County and Palmdale Airport in northern Los Angeles County.

Hahn, along with officials from communities near LAX, lobbied federal officials last week in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the El Toro airport plan alive.

"The mayor is disappointed; he believes El Toro should be built," said Troy Edwards, deputy mayor. "But Ontario is ready and eager to serve some of those passengers."

Ontario served about 6.5 million passengers last year, but it could not easily accept millions of additional passengers a year. For one thing, Air Quality Management District restrictions limit the facility to 12 million passengers a year. And even with two new terminals, Ontario could grow to only 10 million to 12 million without adding facilities and a new runway, officials agree.

Ontario residents and politicians have lobbied for years to add flights at the airport, but they cringe at the notion of absorbing 20 million to 38 million passengers a year if El Toro isn't built. Those figures were devised by the Assn. of Governments as part of two scenarios in its 25-year forecast that left El Toro out of the mix.

"Can we go up to 38 million? Wow, I don't know," said Ontario Mayor Gary Ovitt. "We're real concerned about our quality of life in the future. We don't want to end up like El Segundo and some of those other cities that are negatively impacted by LAX."

Airlines Don't Like Palmdale as Plan B

Palmdale Airport, which hasn't had commercial aviation service since 1997, would take 2 million to 4 million passengers a year by 2025, according to the SCAG alternative that eliminates El Toro. But airline representatives have repeatedly said they're not interested in flying to the far-flung facility. Aviation planners said such reluctance could be overcome if federal officials intervened.

"The airlines don't want to go to Palmdale because they have capital investments in existing facilities,' said Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who also heads the Southern California Regional Aviation Authority. "But with strong direction from the Federal Aviation Administration or the Transportation Security Administration, they may want to move there."

Other local airports said they were unsure they could take up the slack by accepting more international flights.

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