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Friday, Jun 2, 2023

Palmdale Faces Bumpy Ride in Taking Over Airport

Having taken over the lease of the terminal and taxiways at Palmdale Airport, the city of Palmdale faces a more pressing need than how it will operate the airfield. Namely, how to attract an airline to provide scheduled service to the Antelope Valley. Past attempts have all met with failure, the latest being United Airlines service between Palmdale and San Francisco that the airline ended Dec. 7 as it cut its least profitable routes. Once United announced its decision it didn’t take Los Angeles World Airports long to decide that Palmdale was no longer a part of its regionalization effort because it could not provide consistent, viable service. That is when the Palmdale stepped in to take over the lease LAWA had with the U.S. Air Force for the airport property. That move, said city officials, gives greater control over how the airport’s operation. “This is a preference of the Air Force because as the host jurisdiction they believe we can represent what is best for the community,” said Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford. The city does have an airport commission but the role it will play has not been determined. Also up in the air is the future of the Wheels Up Palmdale Coalition made up of the city, LAWA and Los Angeles County to administer a federal grant that subsidized the United Service. The coalition is now reorganizing, said Tony Bell, a spokesman for County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes the Antelope Valley. Even LAWA is not completely out of the picture, having participated in a meeting last month with representatives from Palmdale and Antonovich’s office. If the agency wants to participate, it would be welcome to give input for a successful strategy for the airport, Bell said. “Everyone who is interested in that we want to work with,” he added. The city is still early in the process of finding a suitable airline. There might be charter services willing to consider Palmdale or airlines that could not reach deals with LAWA, Ledford said. Given the demographics of the population closest to the airfield that don’t necessarily fly regularly or at full or business-class fares, Palmdale would most likely appeal to a low-cost carrier, said Jack Keady, an aviation consultant. Not the best time? While oil prices have dropped from the record-level highs in the summer months, the airlines are still recovering and now are faced with passenger drop offs due to the down economy, said Keady, whose firm is based in Playa del Rey. “Probably it is not any better time now than it ever has been to undertake this,” Keady said. “It is going to cost somebody out of pocket money to subsidize some airline.” Palmdale has a spotty history of scheduled commercial air service from the airfield operating from a portion of a larger Air Force base. Before United, Scenic Airways offered flights to North Las Vegas from late 2004 through March 2006. Other carriers previously offered service to LAX and Phoenix. The difference this time was $2 million in funding, including a $900,000 Small Community Air Service Development Grant, guaranteeing United a revenue stream for the 18 months the airline agreed to operate there. The airline did what it could to accommodate the passengers that did use the service: tweaking its schedules to allow for better connections from San Francisco; pricing tickets competitive with similar flights from Los Angeles International Airport and Bob Hope Airport in Burbank; and adding flights using prop planes rather than more costly regional jets. The county contributed with its Flyaway bus service between the airport and the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. Still, it wasn’t enough especially as the airline faced rising oil prices that made little-used routes a burden. When United announced its elimination of the Palmdale service, its planes were only 30 percent to 35 percent full. Government passengers Ledford remains confident that regular air service can work if an airline can offer competitive airfares for both leisure and business travelers; and for fliers going to the many aerospace manufacturers and military installations dotting the Antelope Valley. United pulled the plug on the Palmdale-to-San Francisco route before fully realizing the benefits of offering a General Services Administration rate for government workers. As it stands now, a government employee doing business in the Antelope Valley must rent a car and spend the night at a hotel before taking an early morning flight out of LAX, Ledford said. Taking a flight out of Palmdale, on the other hand, would cost less. “We can eliminate the car and overnight stay and save the government money,” Ledford said. No airline can make a go at a route relying solely on government passengers and also must be willing to offer fares competitive to what is offered at other airports, Keady said. “What you are asking is that the airlines offer deep discount fares and the question is whether an airline can make money at that fare level,” Keady said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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