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Market forces are at play at regional airports

While airports in Ontario, Orange County and Burbank suffered declines in passenger numbers in 2011, Long Beach had an increase. Experts say market forces accounted for the difference.

April 09, 2012|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • Terminal 2 at L.A./Ontario International Airport. The number of passengers using the airport has dropped to about 4.4 million in 2011 from 6.8 million passengers in 2007, according to federal statistics.
Terminal 2 at L.A./Ontario International Airport. The number of passengers… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Some days, the terminals at L.A./Ontario International Airport can be as quiet as a ghost town.

The number of passengers using the airport — about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles — dropped to about 4.4 million in 2011 from 6.8 million passengers in 2007, according to federal statistics. In January, passenger traffic again dropped 7.4%, compared with the same month in 2011.

Passenger numbers also dropped, although less dramatically, at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana.

In contrast, Long Beach Airport, about 20 miles south of L.A., continued to boom, serving more than 3 million passengers last year, a 7% increase over 2007, with growth continuing in 2012.

What's to blame for the differences in passenger numbers among small airports in the same region?

Airport experts have several theories but many point to market forces, such as soaring jet fuel prices, and the added security measures passengers face since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Many small airports primarily serve short-haul flights to destinations 300 to 400 miles away. But many passengers are now opting to drive such distances to avoid the frustratingly long airport security lines, said Roy Williams, an airport consultant and former director of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

"It's the 'hassle factor,' and it has impacted the short-haul routes," he said.

In addition, the soaring price of jet fuel has forced airlines to cut service to smaller airports that generate only slim profits, said Bill Fife, the former chief of planning for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates five airports, including John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia.

"Airlines are much more careful," he said. "They are looking to see which are moneymaking and which are money-losing routes. These are market forces taking place."

As for L.A./Ontario International Airport, Ontario city officials have long blamed the airport's woes on poor management by the city of Los Angeles — a charge disputed by L.A. officials.

Meanwhile, Long Beach Airport officials say they are bucking the trend by keeping the landing fees and terminal-rental costs charged to airlines low, airport Director Mario Rodriguez said. That makes it cheaper for airlines to fly out of Long Beach and pass the savings on to passengers, he said.

In fact, the average domestic airfare for flights out of Long Beach is $240, the second-lowest price in the nation, according to federal statistics for July through September 2011, the most recent data available. The average ticket from Ontario is $97 higher, statistics show.

In addition, Rodriguez said, Long Beach Airport serves many medium-distance routes, such as Salt Lake City and Seattle.

"We are not just for short-hop flights," he said. "We have long-haul flights as well. You can get places from here."

Weird airline rewards unveiled

Would you fly more often if your reward was a regular supply of socks or a leather vest autographed by George Clooney?

With demand for air travel on the rise, the competition for passengers is heating up. One way airlines are trying to lure passengers is with tantalizing rewards offered through frequent-flier programs.

And many of those rewards are, well, weird, according to a study by IdeaWorks, a Shorewood, Wis., airline consulting firm that studied more than 150 airline reward programs. The firm released a list last week of the top 40 "weird, wild and wonderful" rewards.

For example, passengers of the Latvian national airline AirBaltic who accumulate 13,754 airline points can trade the points in for a dog-sled adventure.

American Airlines passengers can trade in 14,700 points for a beer-tasting tour in Brussels, the study found.

With 21,000 points on Lufthansa, passengers can get a "sockscription" that includes a delivery of three pairs of socks immediately, followed by identical deliveries four months and eight months later.

Passengers who accumulate 650 miles with Icelandair can trade in the miles for a traditional Icelandic oatmeal and rhubarb cake known as a "Happy Marriage Cake."

And if you want the leather vest signed by Clooney, the star of "Ocean's Eleven" and"Up in the Air,"you'll need to rack up 177,000 miles with Air Canada.

"Consumers expect more from their frequent-flier programs and airlines seem to be stepping up to the challenge," the report said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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