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Daily Flights to Resume at Palmdale

After six years, airport will start service to North Las Vegas. The city is offering a year of free rent and subsidies to Scenic Airlines.

September 08, 2004|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

The city's airport agency plans to reopen Palmdale Airport this fall in hopes that the dusty desert outpost 70 miles north of downtown will eventually lighten the burden on aging Los Angeles International.

After offering no commercial service for six years, the terminal will open in November to a tiny Nevada airline with daily flights to North Las Vegas.

The new service is the first test of a proposal by Mayor James K. Hahn to redistribute air traffic around Southern California's regional airports to ease crowding at LAX.

Scenic Airlines and the city of Los Angeles had to postpone a plan to start flights at Palmdale this spring when the Air Force, which owns the terminal land, demanded that passengers undergo tougher security checks.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles' Airport Commission voted to provide incentives to the carrier -- and any other airline wishing to use Palmdale within the next three years -- which include free rent and promotional marketing. The airport agency operates Palmdale and Van Nuys airports, as well as LAX and Ontario International Airport.

"I'm happy to hear we have something happening in Palmdale," said Cheryl Petersen, who was elected Airport Commission president at Tuesday's meeting. "We're all very committed to developing our regional airports."

Air travel in Southern California -- including traffic to John Wayne Airport in Orange County and Bob Hope Airport in Burbank -- is expected to double to more than 140 million passengers a year by 2030, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments. Sharing the load among the region's six airports is crucial if Hahn is to keep LAX at 78 million passengers a year -- a key element of his $9-billion modernization plan for the facility. But most of the region's airports face geographic, political or legal constraints on growth.

Officials are looking for help from Palmdale, which has a 9,000-square-foot terminal and 17,000 acres of undeveloped land. The Southern California Assn. of Governments projects that the facility could be developed to handle up to 12.8 million passengers a year by 2030.

Although the carrier has yet to announce an exact date to start service, Scenic Airlines officials said Tuesday they will launch flights as soon as security improvements are completed at North Las Vegas Airport. Los Angeles County and the city of Palmdale each contributed $25,000 to pay for the improvements.

"We hoped to get this done in four months, and it's been almost a year, but we remain committed to it," said Mary Schneider, Scenic's executive vice president of finance.

Los Angeles airport commissioners also voted Tuesday for a three-year lease with Eagle Canyon Airlines, a privately held Nevada firm that owns Scenic Airlines, for office and ticket counter space at Palmdale.

As part of the agreement, the city will provide one year of free rent to the airline. It will also pay $776,000 a year -- for three years -- in maintenance and operation costs and salaries for security and other personnel.

Scenic expects to serve about 7,000 people in the first year, translating into a $110 subsidy per passenger. City officials say the investment will prove to other carriers that Palmdale and surrounding areas can support air service.

"We're assuming that business will build to the point that we can charge rent," said Selena Birk, who oversees Van Nuys and Palmdale airports.

Airport officials told commissioners Tuesday that they hope to offset the maintenance and operation costs by charging fees to park and by opening some concessions.

It's unclear whether subsidies will be enough to attract other airlines to the 33-year-old airport, which has failed repeatedly to draw passengers.

Subsidies are "beneficial, but whether we choose to participate still needs to be solidly grounded in whether that's the best economic choice for us," said Dan Russo, director of marketing for Horizon Air, which the city has courted to use Palmdale. "We haven't done any kind of serious analysis of Palmdale."

About 48,500 travelers flew into or out of Palmdale in 1990, its peak year. The number dwindled to fewer than 19,400 -- an average of 53 a day -- by 1997. The last carrier pulled out in 1998, citing a lack of interest in its service.

Since then, the cities of Los Angeles and Palmdale have conducted surveys that they say found that airlines could attract enough passengers in the Palmdale area.

Scenic executives said the airline has already received numerous calls from Palmdale residents eager to visit Las Vegas and from business people in Las Vegas who would attend meetings in Palmdale.

But the long-term viability of the service remains to be seen. Scenic's planes are not pressurized and fly at about 10,000 feet. They don't carry flight attendants and don't have restrooms. And the fare, at $158 round trip plus fees, is higher than weekday fares offered by discount carriers at Bob Hope Airport.

If there is enough demand, Schneider said, Scenic will upgrade its aircraft and it plans to offer shuttle bus connections to McCarran International Airport and to hotels along the Las Vegas Strip.

"We expect it to go very well," she said.

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