Until now, to catch a flight at LAX, Ning Umandap left her Valencia home five hours before the scheduled departure. Today, she will drive half an hour to Palmdale Regional Airport, where she will travel on the first service offered from the facility in 16 months.
Umandap and 16 colleagues from Velur Enterprises, a Van Nuys real estate firm that does business in the Antelope Valley, will take United Airlines' inaugural flight from Palmdale to San Francisco International Airport at 10:49 a.m. The carrier will offer two flights a day, seven days a week between the airports on 50-seat regional jets.
"We would like to show that this can become very, very successful," said Umandap, who plans to use the service regularly. "They are helping us have a quality of life."
Local officials hope this will be the beginning of a new era for the municipal airport and will boost efforts to spread out passenger service as Los Angeles International Airport -- which handles 50% more travelers than it was designed for -- struggles to cope with long lines and inadequate airfield space. Air traffic in the region is expected to double by 2030, even as facilities in Burbank, Santa Ana and Long Beach are prevented from accepting more flights because of noise restrictions or the inability to build new terminals.
"This is not your typical small community airport opening," said Paul Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security at Los Angeles' airport agency. "This is a major change in the Southern California aviation landscape."
Palmdale and Los Angeles officials, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, will be on hand to kick off the new service today.
Repeated attempts by airlines to offer flights from the 35-year-old airport never got very 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 if not for $2.3 million in revenue guarantees by Los Angeles' World Airports agency and the city of Palmdale. The carrier has agreed to stay at least 18 months.
Even so, airport officials cite several factors they say will help United succeed where others failed. These include the use of jets instead of propeller aircraft, short lines at ticket counters and security checkpoints, free parking and lots of connecting flights at San Francisco International.
United declined to discuss how seats are selling on its Palmdale flights, but said it has been impressed with attendance at community events to promote the service. Antelope Valley travel agents say they've sold some seats but have found that residents are holding off to see whether the service is successful.
"The attitude in the desert now is that everyone wants to wait and see what everyone else does," said John Smith, chief executive of the American Travel Bureau.
Palmdale officials say they've urged residents at community events to support the service.
"Not only is United here trying to establish business, but their competitors are watching us," said Mayor James Ledford. "If we can show that we can support service, I believe we can bring competitors in here."
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