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LAX watches world go by

Cramped facilities push Pacific Rim carriers to newer airports.

February 23, 2007|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Eight times a week, travelers arrive at Los Angeles International Airport after a long journey from Sydney, Australia, eager to stretch their legs and spend money at tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants.

These visitors, about 380 a day who spill out into the sunshine from Qantas Airlines flights and make Southern California their destination, stay in the area three weeks on average, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. They contribute $183 million a year to the region's economy.

Come next month, Qantas will be taking these flights, and their multimillion-dollar economic benefit, to San Francisco, although its other 42 weekly flights from Sydney and elsewhere to LAX will continue.

The move is just one example of a little-noticed shift in lucrative international air service away from crowded LAX to newer facilities in San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York. Since 2000, LAX has lost 12% of the seats on its weekly international departures, while other major U.S. gateways posted gains in service to foreign destinations.

Economists blame the shift on LAX's cramped and outdated terminals and lawmakers' inability to agree on a plan to modernize the airport while other cities have built gleaming new concourses. And newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft give carriers more choices of cities to patronize.

The trend is alarming local officials, who say San Francisco International Airport may soon eclipse LAX as the highly coveted premier gateway to the Pacific Rim. This could endanger the $4 billion a year that international visitors pump into the Southland's economy.

"Everyone assumed that LAX as a gateway would be there by the very fact that it's in L.A.," said Michael Collins, executive vice president of LA Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau, which has received $33 million from the city's airport agency since 2001 to stimulate travel at LAX and Ontario International Airport.

"The issue that we're wrestling with is that the options for carriers -- the choices they have now -- are virtually twice as many as they had in 1995," Collins said. "The intensity of the competition has really increased."

For several decades, airlines plied international routes from their biggest hubs. Now, with the help of fuel-efficient aircraft, they're just as likely to favor smaller cities and different routes. For example, Korean Air started flying nonstop last fall from Seoul to Las Vegas, bypassing LAX. (The carrier still has LAX service.) This trend is expected to accelerate when new aircraft with longer ranges come into service in the next few years.

Many large airports around the U.S. are already enjoying record spending by international travelers, at least some of it at LAX's expense.

Since 2000, service from LAX to Tokyo has plummeted 33%, for example. United Airlines slashed one out of every three nonstop weekly international departures, while more than doubling service at hubs in Denver, Chicago and Washington.

Travel wholesalers who plan itineraries for overseas groups say LAX's outmoded facilities are increasingly prompting operators to bring U.S. tours through other cities. Jeff Karnes, regional vice president at New World Travel, said major improvements in such airports as San Francisco's and Las Vegas' have "definitely had an impact on L.A. being their first choice as a West Coast gateway."

Not everyone is unhappy with the decline in international business at LAX, particularly critics who want to see the facility's growth limited, if not reversed.

"The bottom line, as far as the general residency are concerned, is that they are very happy to see as many flights go elsewhere -- the more the merrier," said Roy Hefner, a Westchester resident who is on an airport committee that studies noise and other issues.

While Los Angeles officials and residents spent the last decade and $150 million arguing about how to modernize LAX, San Francisco built a cavernous, $1-billion international terminal. The 6-year-old facility is more than twice the size of the 22-year-old Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX and has twice as many gates. It boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, restaurants and boarding-area seating for hundreds of passengers.

LAX officials say they realize they must build new facilities before the scales tip and San Francisco becomes the airport of choice for carriers serving foreign destinations.

"The strategy for us is that we're ready facility-wise, so we do not lose our share of some of the Asian markets," said Samson Mengistu, acting executive director of Los Angeles World Airports. "When we were in China, they were telling us they may have 200 to 300 million Chinese people in the next 10 years flying internationally. We need to be able to compete and get a fair share of that growing market."

The city's airport agency began a $723-million update to the Bradley terminal this year, but it won't be done for three years and will not enlarge the building, industry watchers note.

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