LA's Regional Airports Secure New Carriers

Expanded service at Ontario and reopening of Palmdale are aimed at easing burden on LAX.


Providing lift to a decades-long effort to redistribute air traffic among the region's airports, a new airline will announce Monday the largest expansion in LA/Ontario International Airport's history, with nonstop service to 14 cities not currently served by carriers there.

At the same time, Los Angeles officials will unveil plans to reopen LA/Palmdale Regional Airport with the first scheduled commercial flights in nine years.

Despite past difficulties in spreading out air service and some skepticism in the airline industry, the city's airport agency hopes the additions will ease overcrowding at aging Los Angeles International and entice other carriers to add flights in Ontario and Palmdale. Los Angeles World Airports operates both the Inland Empire and Antelope Valley facilities.

"These are great first steps," said Matt Szabo, a spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has pushed for more service at outlying airports. "It will provide more convenient alternatives for air travel in and out of Southern California."

Starting in April, ExpressJet Airlines Inc. will offer 29 daily nonstop flights from Ontario to cities including Albuquerque; Boise, Idaho; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Fresno; Monterey; and Oklahoma City on 50-seat regional jets replete with leather seats and satellite radio. Daily nonstops to Omaha and Tulsa, Okla. -- not currently available at any other Southern California airport -- are also on the schedule. Ontario will be the busiest facility in the new airline's network.

"This is a perfect case where you have an airport in a pretty fast-growing part of a big metropolitan area where the service hasn't been developed to a lot of communities," said James Ream, ExpressJet's chief executive.

From Palmdale, United Airlines will offer two daily flights to San Francisco International Airport on 50-seat regional jets starting in June. Airline officials acknowledged they wouldn't be providing service at the unused facility if it weren't for $2.3 million in revenue guarantees offered by the airport agency and the city of Palmdale.

Expanding Los Angeles' far-flung airports is essential for the region's economy. Air traffic in the Southland is expected to double by 2030, even as existing facilities, including those in Burbank, Santa Ana and Long Beach, cannot accept more flights because of noise restrictions or the inability to build new terminals. LAX is also handling 50% more passengers than it was built for, and officials signed an agreement with airport-area communities promising to limit growth there to 78 million travelers annually. The airport served about 61 million in 2006.

Southern California officials tried unsuccessfully for years to figure out how to make the region's airports work as a system, but were hampered by parochialism and the refusal of some communities to build new facilities or accept more flights.

Officials hope new service at Ontario and Palmdale will entice carriers to add flights -- in part because new revenue flowing to Los Angeles' airports agency from the new service will help bring down fees for all carriers at both facilities. Yet travelers would have to be willing to make long drives. Ontario is nearly 38 miles from Pasadena, for example, and Palmdale is 44 miles away.

"The first step is the most important step," said Steve Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor who has studied the region's airports. "With the airlines, there's an incredible herd mentality, and they do play follow the leader."

But airline analysts caution that increasing competition could also backfire if other carriers offer flights on larger aircraft with lower fares to cities that ExpressJet serves. They cite the experiences of other regional airlines that stumbled after switching from feeding passengers to larger carriers to offering their own service. ExpressJet will have to overcome its lack of experience in operating a stand-alone airline.

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