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Palmdale air service struggling to take off

United Airlines faces a lackluster response to its San Francisco flights.

December 06, 2007|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

As the L.A./Palmdale Regional Airport today marks six months of resumed passenger service, officials are facing some sobering numbers: On average, only one of every three seats is occupied.

United Airlines' June 7 launch of twice-daily service to San Francisco marked more than the reopening of an airport that hadn't seen a flight offered by a major carrier in nearly a decade. It also opened a front in Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's campaign to relieve pressure on aging, cramped Los Angeles International Airport by spreading out air traffic to the region's other airports.

But the so-far lackluster response to United's 50-seat-jet service at Palmdale underscores challenges to further regionalizing air service. Among them are enticing airlines to offer flights at smaller airports and luring passengers, who also often must pay higher fares because of limited competition.

"Some of these politicians think with regionalization that all they have to do is pronounce the word and the airlines and passengers are going to switch airports," said Jack Keady, an aviation consultant based in Playa del Rey. "It's not that easy."

Even so, the Los Angeles airport agency that operates Palmdale and United Airlines officials insist they are still bullish on the service's chances for long-term success, saying start-up flights in new markets typically take months to catch on with passengers.

"We recognize, not just in Palmdale, but in other airports around the country, that when you begin service, there is a transition period that takes a bit of time to inform people about the service," said Jeff Kovick, a United spokesman.

Officials hope Palmdale will play a pivotal role in taking up the slack when air traffic in Southern California doubles to 170 million passengers a year by 2030. Established airports in Burbank, Long Beach and Orange County are unable to handle the crush of new passengers because of caps on operations or limited land to expand. At LAX, Villaraigosa agreed to hold traffic to 78 million travelers a year to placate airport-area residents.

Repeated attempts by airlines to offer flights from the 35-year-old Palmdale airport never got far off the ground. Scenic Airlines, a sightseeing company with service to Las Vegas, left last February, saying it wasn't making money. Aviation officials acknowledged that the United flights wouldn't have been available except for $2.3 million in revenue guarantees by Los Angeles' airport agency and the city of Palmdale. United has agreed to stay at least 18 months.

Saying the market was finally ready to support daily flights, officials unveiled the service with much fanfare. They bought billboard space in the Antelope Valley and advertised the flights on parking lot stripes in local malls and on gas station pumps.Yet potential passengers faced higher fares than at LAX, dismaying airport agency officials.

"It is disconcerting when we hear from travelers attempting to use the new service to and from [Palmdale] who encountered pricing or seat inventory barriers that do not exist on United flights at LAX," Gina Marie Lindsey, the airport agency's executive director, wrote to Glenn Tilton, United's chairman.

Airport officials also are encouraging area residents to consider the time and money they spend traveling to and parking at LAX or Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. Parking is free at Palmdale, and waiting times to go through security screening average about five minutes, they said.

Flying from Palmdale to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., connecting through San Francisco International, takes six hours and 10 minutes. Flying direct to Dulles from LAX, including two hours and 30 minutes on the freeway, would consume seven hours and 12 minutes, airport consultants say.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles officials celebrated the 10,000th passenger on United's Palmdale flights. But LAX serves this many people in about 90 minutes.

Experts said only time will tell whether the investment will fly.

"You have to maintain constant pressure," said Keady, the aviation consultant. "For an airline like United, that is huge and quite openly looking for a merger partner, Palmdale is not at the top of its list. Part of what Los Angeles has to do is to prod United to pay more attention."

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