Mayor Offers Regional Airport Plan to Shift Domestic Flights From LAX

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Tuesday outlined his vision for the region's air traffic system, calling for airlines to concentrate international flights at LAX while shifting some new domestic travel, particularly short-haul flights, to other airports.

Los Angeles faces many obstacles in clearing its air traffic jams, however. Efforts at regionalizing air transportation already have failed three times in recent years.

Airlines prefer big-city airports, and airport directors cannot force carriers to redistribute flights to airports far from the population concentration in and around Los Angeles.

But at the news Tuesday that a record number of international passengers used Los Angeles International Airport in 2005, Villaraigosa said other airports in Southern California must begin handling some of the increasing demand for air travel.

"We've got to grow our airport capacity in the region," the mayor said at LAX, where he announced that Qantas Airways was opening a new maintenance facility at the airport that would double its engineering and maintenance workforce at the airfield.

"We want an airport that has the capability to continue our paramount position as the No. 1 destination airport in the world and as the gateway to the Pacific Rim and the growing economies of the East" and the growing markets of South America, the mayor said.

There are nine other Southern California airports that officials hope will take the pressure off aging LAX because the region faces a doubling of the number of air passengers by 2030.

With a new agreement to try to limit growth at LAX and existing caps on flights at Long Beach and John Wayne airports, efforts to spread air traffic to the Inland Empire and Antelope Valley are taking on a new urgency.

That has resulted in a refined vision that would concentrate the most lucrative international flights at LAX.

"LAX is the international facility for this region," Lydia Kennard, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, said Tuesday. "And we are very positive about expanding international service here. But what we are really clear about is that does not mean growth, and we are not promoting growth, in the domestic arena."

The role of LAX as a hub of international travel was confirmed Tuesday when the city released its passenger counts for 2005 showing record international volume at LAX.

"That's exactly what we see for our future at LAX -- to be the dominant international facility -- and other airports need to take up domestic short- and long-haul service," Kennard said.

LAX airlines served 17.48 million international passengers in 2005, eclipsing the previous high of 17.41 million in 2000. International passenger volume was up 6.1% in 2005 compared with 2004. Total passenger volume at LAX in 2005 was 61.4 million, up 1.3% from 2004. Air freight at LAX in 2005 was 2.04 million tons, also a record.

The figures show not only that air travel at LAX has continued to recover from the lows following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but also that growth is continuing in the region.

The city-owned Ontario International Airport set its own record for total passengers, increasing 4% over the previous year.

On Tuesday, Villaraigosa said airports in the region, including Ontario and Palmdale Regional Airport, must pick up some of the growing air traffic so that LAX does not become a nuisance, with traffic, noise and other problems, to its neighbors.

"I believe we can more strategically increase capacity at Palmdale and Ontario, and that's what you are going to see in the coming months," Villaraigosa said.

In addition to a modernization plan for the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, estimated to be worth more than $500 million, the city plans to improve the infrastructure at Ontario and Palmdale so they can handle more flights.

"Ontario is growing, but we haven't done what we are going to do to invest in the infrastructure there," the mayor said. "The same with Palmdale."

Aviation experts say the city can expect roadblocks ahead, including carriers' preference for using big-city airports that are patronized by corporate clients.

So Southland officials must persuade airlines to serve Palmdale, San Bernardino and other airports when their best customers live near LAX and facilities in Long Beach and Orange County that are operating at capacity.

"Therein lies our dilemma," Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, told the city's Airport Commission recently.

With 10 airports operated by eight agencies, the regional system is expected to serve about 170 million passengers by 2030. But it faces a 40% shortfall in capacity -- more than any other region in the nation.

Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties tried three times between 1985 and 2002 to find a way to redistribute passengers among the region's airports. The negotiations collapsed.

"Those days are over -- regionalism on many levels is critical for us," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who is working with Villaraigosa on a Southern California aviation strategy.

Villaraigosa, who sat in the pilot's seat of a Qantas 747 after the news conference Tuesday, confirmed that he was prepared to take a firmer hand in guiding the spread of air-travel demand beyond LAX.

But Los Angeles has struggled to expand its own airports in Ontario and Palmdale. Even after Villaraigosa announced recently that he would emphasize shifting air traffic to these facilities, several carriers canceled service there.

Scenic Airlines, the only carrier operating at Palmdale, canceled flights to Las Vegas earlier this month, saying it wasn't making money.

Some experts say the market is working -- though slowly -- to move flights to airports other than LAX.

In 2005, about 70% of the region's air travelers used LAX, down from 88% in 1960.

Ontario, located about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, is considered the region's best chance to accommodate more passengers; the airport has room to grow and the city's residents welcome more service.

Airport officials say they have responded to new demands for flights at Ontario, pointing to the 10,000 people a month who fly from the airport to several destinations in Mexico -- a market that didn't exist four years ago.

But skeptics note that it took 15 years for Ontario to add a million travelers, despite new terminals and millions spent on promotion.

Airport officials say they will keep aggressively marketing Ontario and will consider developing Palmdale airport, where the city owns 17,000 acres 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

"I'm definitely of the school of 'if you build it they will come,' " said Alan Rothenberg, president of the city's Airport Commission.

"I saw what happened at Dulles. There was nothing but 30 miles of forest between the capital and Dulles when it first came up," he said, referring to the major airport outside Washington, D.C.

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