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Economists blame the shift on LAX's cramped and outdated terminals and lawmakers' inability to agree on a plan to modernize the airport while other cities have built gleaming new concourses.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.
The stark contrast between San Francisco Int'l Airport and LAX has led to speculation that San Francisco will woo A380 flights away from LAX.
Eleven new gates will be added to LAX's Bradley International Terminal to help retain international flights. The gates are years off and not part of the just-begun renovation project.
Efforts at regionalizing air transportation already have failed three times in recent years.
Focus on international growth