Saturday, February 03, 2007
New suburban flights will offer LAX relief
United will fly from the Palmdale airport and ExpressJet from Ontario.
By Doug Irving
Monday will be a very good day for those who have struggled for years to break the region's reliance on Los Angeles International Airport and spread more air traffic to the smaller airports in the suburbs.
In the morning, a startup airline will announce plans to begin flying from inland Ontario to more than a dozen small and midsize U.S. cities. A few hours later, airport commissioners are expected to clear the way for regular air service to resume in the high-desert town of Palmdale.
Taken together, the two announcements could go a long way toward changing how the Los Angeles region flies. Planners and politicians alike have agreed that LAX can't handle the future travel demand alone -- and they need Palmdale and Ontario to make up the difference.
"Once the public gets used to the idea that they don't have to go to LAX, they're going to want to use their home airports," said Denny Schneider of Westchester, the president of a group called the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion.
That, he added, "will reduce the amount of traffic congestion on our freeways and make it more convenient for those who do go out of LAX."
The same Los Angeles agency that owns LAX also operates the airports in Palmdale and Ontario, and has worked in recent years to shunt some air traffic their way.
It recently added "LA" to their names, to help market them to travelers who might not otherwise be able to find them on a map.
But airlines have always been hesitant to move flights away from the bustling hub of LAX and into the outlying airports unless they know the demand is there. LA/Ontario International Airport has begun to take off in recent years, but LA/Palmdale has, for the most part, been a very quiet place.
United Airlines now wants to launch twice-daily flights from Palmdale to its hub in San Francisco, a plan the airport commission is expected to approve Monday. That would give Palmdale one-stop access to Honolulu and Hong Kong, Seoul and San Salvador.
Palmdale's supporters have pledged $4.6 million in free rent, cash and other incentives to any airline willing to take a chance there. That set up a tug-of-war between two of the nation's biggest airlines -- United and Delta -- with Palmdale the unlikely prize.
United's proposal beat a Delta plan to fly commuter jets twice a day to its hub in Salt Lake City. United spokesman Jeff Kovick declined to give details about the airline's proposal, such as the expected fares.
United would be the first major airline to fly into Palmdale since the late-1990s; airport officials hope to begin flights by this summer. Part of the money they held out as a lure would ensure the airline doesn't take a loss on the deal for up to three years.
"All we can do is hope and encourage (travelers) to support the service," Palmdale Mayor James Ledford said. "There's a lot of built-in interest to go to San Francisco. There's already critical mass that supports that."
Ontario has fared much better than Palmdale in recent years, attracting flights and travelers as its Inland Empire surroundings swelled with new residents. But it, too, has a long way to go to attract the level of traffic needed to ease the crunch at LAX.
On Monday, a new airline will announce it plans to put more flights into Ontario than into any other city in the nation. The airline, ExpressJet, will be flying comfortable business jets with valet service for carry-ons and free satellite radio.
Its route map hopscotches across mostly midsize cities such as Albuquerque, N.M., and Jacksonville, Fla. It's planning to connect LA/Ontario with 14 cities, from Fresno and Monterey to Tulsa and Kansas City.
Its first flights from Ontario are scheduled for April 2. Its cheapest round-trip fares, for nonrefundable tickets, range from about $155 to Fresno, to about $305 to Albuquerque, to about $355 to Tulsa, not including taxes and fees.
Its Web site describes Ontario as a "suburban locale (that) gives instant access to Southern California ... without the LAX traffic."
On Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will welcome ExpressJet to Ontario -- and not just with a speech and a handshake. With the cameras rolling, he plans to step onto the tarmac and wave a symbolic airplane to a stop at its new destination.
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