July 17, 2007

PALMDALE -- When Laura Mlynar traveled to the Antelope Valley from her Virginia Beach home, she opted for United Airlines' new Palmdale service.

Landing in Palmdale put her close to her son's Quartz Hill home and saved the family a 72-mile trip on busy freeways to pick her up at Los Angeles International Airport.

``It eliminates all the driving down below,'' Mlynar said. ``My son lives just minutes away from the airport.''

The flight was a nice experience, even though it meant a five-hour layover in San Francisco. A midday flight into Palmdale would be nice, she said, but she would still fly into the newly renamed L.A./Palmdale Regional Airport again even without one.

``It was real convenient,'' Mlynar said. ``I met a nice lady from Palmdale and she said it was the greatest thing going.''

Supporters of the Palmdale airport are hoping that convenience will prompt travelers to try the service at least once. If they can get them on a plane one time, airport boosters are confident those travelers will be back again and the long-running dream of a functional Palmdale airport will become a reality.

``If you can make a connection very easily and conveniently in San Francisco, why would you exchange the opportunity to do that to drive into the teeth of the worst congestion in the United States?'' said Mark Thorpe, Los Angeles World Airports director of air service development. ``What you're doing is replacing an automobile commute with a plane commute to San Francisco. You're going to be able to connect from San Francisco to as many places as you can at LAX.''

United's Palmdale service began on June 7. United declined to comment on whether it's successful so far, citing proprietary concerns.

Los Angeles World Airports, or LAWA as it is known for short, has the passenger numbers, but cannot disclose them. LAWA officials will say, in general terms, that things are going well for the new service.

``It's better than most new services do in their first four to six weeks,'' Thorpe said. ``We're seeing that load factors are actually tracking up.''

Calling it their best hope to date for finally getting a successful commercial service out of the airport, LAWA, Palmdale and other airport officials have banded together to put a $4.6 million incentive package to support United's Antelope Valley operations. That package, which includes a $900,000 federal grant, will go toward promoting and, if necessary, underwriting operating losses for United's Palmdale service.

``We're going to do everything we can to make the service work,'' Thorpe said. ``We wouldn't have gone to the significant lengths that we have if we didn't think there was a market.''

One of the keys to whether the operation succeeds is support from the business community. LAWA is looking at ways to encourage travel agencies to encourage their corporate clients to use the Palmdale service.

``What's really going to make this service go is the corporate travel community up here getting behind it,'' Thorpe said. ``There's a lot of aerospace, military and government activity going up here. We need to put those people on a plane.''

People using the service are going to find a much more relaxed traveling experience, said Bob Gluck, LAWA's head of Palmdale operations. Many of the airline and transportation security people live in the Antelope Valley, and have a vested interest in its success.

``They are sensitive to the importance of the airport. I think as a result of that, you're finding a friendlier environment,'' Gluck said. ``There is a local, hospitable feel to the operation.''

With the startup of jet service, a supporters group for the airport is being revitalized. The Palmdale Regional Airport Advisory Council is being renamed the L.A./Palmdale Airport Supporters Group.

Paul Martin, a Baptist minister who worked on airport issues in Denver before moving to Palmdale this spring, is president of the group. Martin said he knows the community has been disappointed with past failures of airlines to take root, but he believes the time is right.

``I think United is committed to this region,'' Martin said. ``This is a great opportunity to get this off the ground. We want to encourage other airlines to take a look at this facility.''


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