Mayor Offers Regional Airport Plan to Shift Domestic Flights From LAX

Efforts at regionalizing air transportation already have failed three times in recent years.

"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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