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United Airlines will stop service out of Palmdale

Carrier has been losing 'significant money' on L.A.'s airport initiative.

September 19, 2008|David Zahniser and Phil Willon | Times Staff Writers

Dealing a setback to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan for a network of regional airports, United Airlines has decided to halt its service out of LA/Palmdale Regional Airport starting Dec. 7, city officials said Thursday.

Los Angeles World Airports General Manager Gina Marie Lindsey said United, the only major carrier at Palmdale airport, was losing "significant money" on the initiative despite receiving government subsidies.

"Everybody's disappointed that it has not turned out to be more successful, but it was certainly a valiant effort," she said.

The pullout comes 15 months after Villaraigosa and other L.A. politicians stood on the tarmac in Palmdale to welcome United, hailing it as a sign that they were making headway in redistributing the passenger load away from LAX.

Within months, however, the airline was struggling to fill its twice-daily flights to San Francisco, with 2 of 3 seats going empty. A decision last month to switch to a smaller propeller plane -- and four flights a day -- did not help, Lindsey said.

The push to add flights at Palmdale had been supported initially by a $900,000 grant from the federal government, airport officials said. The grant was not renewed this year.

"It's an unfortunate casualty of a weak economy and unsustainable high fuel prices," said the mayor's spokesman, Matt Szabo.

Szabo said the mayor "remains committed" to the regionalization of air travel in Southern California and has instructed the L.A. airports agency to reinvest money intended for Palmdale to promote services at LA/Ontario International Airport.

In his letter to the Department of Transportation seeking more grant money, Villaraigosa said LA/Palmdale was off to a "promising start" and was pivotal to the effort to create a regional airport network.

"I consider the reopening of the LA/Palmdale [airport] to commercial jet service by United Airlines on June 7, 2007, one of the top accomplishments of my administration," he wrote.

Neighborhood leaders who live near LAX -- many of whom supported Villaraigosa in the 2005 election -- have argued that air traffic should be spread more evenly throughout the region. Villaraigosa responded by moving to resurrect the Southern California Regional Airport Authority, an agency that had been dormant for years.

That group went six months without a single meeting and pulled the plug in February.

One aviation consultant said that United, whose parent company is UAL Corp., failed to properly market its service and should have courted the federal government employees traveling to and from nearby military bases. Once the federal grant dried up, United had no motivation to stay, said Jack Keady, an aviation consultant based in Playa del Rey.

"Since they never wanted to be in Palmdale, they never put any efforts to be in Palmdale," he added.

United spokesman Jeff Kovick disagreed, saying his company worked with public officials to make the initiative a success. "There simply was just not enough customer interest," he said.

The air carrier also will discontinue flights out of Kalamazoo, Mich., and Anchorage, Kovick said.

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said he thought United did not give the service enough time to develop. And with Lancaster and Palmdale already hard hit by an economic downturn and a rash of home foreclosures, United's announcement was not welcomed by high desert officials. "It's just more bad news on top of everything else," Parris said.

Lindsey, the LAX manager, said the aviation industry's woes also would make it difficult in the near future to market second- and third-tier airports to the airlines.

"I think it will be a while before there's another viable try at commercial service in Palmdale," she added.

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