United Airlines begins daily service next month between Palmdale and San Francisco in what may be the last chance to bring scheduled commercial air service to the Antelope Valley. What is different this time from when United last offered flights out of Palmdale in 1998 is a change in demographics and economics of the Antelope Valley, more congestion on freeways linking the valley with other, larger airports and an unprecedented commitment by Los Angeles World Airports to make it work. Funds from the airport agency, Los Angeles County and the City of Palmdale will be supplemented with a federal grant guaranteeing monthly revenue for United if it falls short of its projections. The airline, in turn, has made an 18-month commitment to stay at L.A./Palmdale Regional Airport. “This is a critical opportunity to establish air service and prove there is a market here,” said Mark Thorpe, air service marketing director with LAWA. Inside the terminal building on land LAWA leases from the U.S. Air Force, the check-in counters and metal detector are ready for passengers to arrive June 7 for flights to the Bay area. Outside is a free parking lot with ample spaces; where the silence is broken only by a brisk wind, the flapping of a bird’s wings or a jet fighter streaking across the azure sky. If all goes according to LAWA’s wishes, vehicles belonging to area residents, especially those employed at the major aerospace companies or the military, will fill that lot. For the key to the success of the air service lies in the corporate traveler on a tight schedule who is willing to trade a commute down to LAX or Bob Hope Airport in Burbank for a 70-minute flight to San Francisco and from there the rest of the country or the world. “We see this as an opportunity for residents and customers to take advantage of our global route network,” said United spokesman Jeff Kovick. Service to an airport with many connecting flights, such as San Francisco, is what sets this attempt at scheduled commercial air service apart from previous ones, said Palmdale Mayor James Ledford. The terminal’s most recent tenant, Scenic Airways, offered flights to North Las Vegas from late 2004 through March 2006. Other carriers have previously offered service to LAX and Phoenix. Data collected by LAWA shows a quantifiable time savings when flying out of Palmdale, Thorpe said, while data from travel agencies revealed that up to 30 percent of travelers from the Antelope Valley booked premium seats first class, business class or the costly walk-up fare. With four of the top five employers in the Antelope Valley related to aerospace or the military, the airport looks to attract those workers, especially since much of the work done at Lockheed Martin in the city limits, or at Edwards Air Force Base or China Lake in the desert, is of an experimental nature, requiring engineers and project managers. “There is a different mix of flyer coming out of those bases,” Thorpe said. In applying for a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, LAWA didn’t show a need from the aerospace and military, so most persuasive to the feds was the overall demographics of the Antelope Valley and its proximity to the Santa Clarita and northern San Fernando Valleys as a secondary area to attract customers, Thorpe said. The $900,000 awarded for the Palmdale service is among the highest given through a Small Community Air Service Development Grant. LAWA applied for the grant in 2003 and 2004 before it was finally successful in 2006. Bringing scheduled service to Palmdale helps meet the larger goal of regionalizing the airports of the greater Los Angeles area to more evenly distribute traffic, taking the burden off LAX. Bob Rodine, a Sherman Oaks consultant with clients in the aviation industry, called regionalization a thorny issue and said that, theoretically it makes sense to spread flights around to other airports. The marketplace for commercial air travel, however, is not spread out and many potential passengers are in an area of limited physical distribution, Rodine said. “When you get far beyond Crenshaw, moving east from the ocean, you have little demand for commercial air service,” Rodine said.
Palmdale Bets Airport Will Take Off