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Security Could Delay Palmdale Airport Deal

March 08, 2004|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles World Airports and a tiny Nevada airline are trying to hammer out a deal to bring commercial flights back to Palmdale Airport as early as April 2, but the plan could run into turbulence over security issues.

Scenic Airlines, a privately held company based at North Las Vegas Airport, has already sold flights on a 19-passenger Twin Otter propeller plane scheduled to fly at least one round trip a day, seven days a week, between Palmdale and Las Vegas.

For such a low level of service, federal law mandates only minimal passenger identification checks. The law does not require baggage screening or the presence of federal security personnel.

But the Air Force -- which owns the land on which the Palmdale terminal sits and runs top-secret aircraft development programs nearby -- is demanding a higher level of scrutiny.

"We have a military mission out here. There are sensitivities," said Lt. Col. Ronald Ortiz, commander of the Air Force installation called Plant 42, which shares runways with Palmdale Airport. "We have to have an acceptable screening process."

Airport agency officials met recently with David Stone, acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, to request federal screeners for Palmdale. But Stone was noncommittal.

Airport officials have also been trying to come up with their own plan to satisfy the Air Force, including possibly paying for private screeners.

"We don't want the cost of security ... to be a showstopper," said Paul Haney, spokesman for Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates Los Angeles International, Ontario International, Van Nuys and Palmdale airports. "This is a huge, huge piece of the regional airport solution. We want to do anything we can to start service out there."

The cost of security for Palmdale is not yet known, and whether the airport agency would pick up the tab has not been decided by the agency's board.

Palmdale Airport has had no commercial flights since 1998, when United Airlines pulled out, citing insufficient business. Today, the 9,000-square-foot terminal sits vacant, and the front gates are padlocked to keep out trespassers.

But groundskeepers have been sprucing up the facility in anticipation of the day when commercial flights would resume. In the last couple of years, grass and trees have been planted and walls repainted.

Normally, Scenic's entry into the Antelope Valley would barely register a blip in the Southland's jet-dominated air market. But airport and county officials, who have pledged more than $50,000 in marketing, support and other incentives to assist the airline, are betting that it will be an important first step toward transforming the high desert outpost into a bustling hub to ease overcrowding at LAX.

Air travel in the region is expected to double to more than 140 million passengers a year by 2030, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments. But such established airports as LAX, Long Beach and Burbank face geographic, legal or political constraints on growth.

Palmdale Airport, in contrast, has more than 17,000 acres of undeveloped land. According to SCAG, the tracts could be developed to handle as many as 12.8 million passengers a year by 2030.

To lure Scenic, Los Angeles World Airports is providing free terminal space, outside consultants to create a marketing campaign and $25,000 for buying local advertising. The office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich also has pledged $25,000 to help publicize the airline's new service.

"They have really bent over backward ... going out of their way to help us get this going," said Mitzi Daines, director of business development for Scenic, which also offers sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon as well as service to Merced, Calif., and Ely, Nev. "Palmdale is a big deal for us. We're established, but we're not huge. Palmdale is a big fish in our little pond."

Marvin McKinnon, a Lancaster real estate agent who has already booked a $190 round-trip flight for a Las Vegas trip with three friends, is keeping his fingers crossed that security issues won't scuttle plans to reopen the airport and that Scenic's foray will spark a trend.

"I just hope that this one airline will get some of the attention of other commercial carriers ... to come back to the Antelope Valley," he said.

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