By Dan Weikel
1:28 PM PST, January 25, 2014
Bolstered by an improving economy, Los Angeles International Airport handled more than 17.8 million foreign travelers in 2013, a record for the West Coast gateway that struggled for years to recover that portion of its market.
The previous peak for the nation’s third busiest airport was about 17.5 million international passengers in 2005, but a global economic slowdown triggered a steep decline in air travel and interrupted further growth.
Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, the operator of LAX that announced the passenger figures, attributed the record to an improving worldwide economy, especially in Asia, and a modest strengthening of the Southern California economy.
She also said international carriers were starting or expanding service at LAX as a result of an ongoing modernization project that includes at least $4 billion in current improvements to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, taxiways and the airport’s central utility plant.
“This ratifies the priority of the investment we have made at LAX and it demonstrates that we have more yet to build so we can adequately accommodate the international market,” Lindsey said.
The improvement in foreign travel is important economically for the region and to the airport's modernization and expansion plans.
A single international flight traveling round-trip daily for a year from LAX generates $623 million in business activity and supports 3,120 jobs locally, according to a Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. study.
More international passengers also translates into increased revenue for LAX that can be used to finance additional improvements to terminals, runways and transportation, such as a planned people mover and a transit hub.
The recovery has not been easy, however. For years, LAX lagged behind other big city U.S. airports in the effort to regain that portion of the market at levels seen before the recession.
Large airports in California and most other regions of the country surpassed their pre-slump foreign traffic numbers from 2005 faster than LAX, sometimes dramatically so, according to passenger figures.
A number of factors stalled the resurgence at LAX, including the economic downturn, changing travel patterns, the bankruptcy of Mexicana Airlines and natural disasters overseas, most notably Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.
In addition to the surge in international travel, overall passenger volumes at LAX increased from 63.7 million in 2012 to 66.7 million in 2013.
The number is roughly 1% below the airport’s record of 67.3 million in 2000. Air travel plunged a year later after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Center. The decline continued as the economy headed into recession.
“Barring any events impacting air travel, 2014 could be the year that we finally surpass the record level in 2000 and get past the impacts of 9/11 and the Great Recession,” said Nancy Castles, an airport spokeswoman.
Despite the improvements at LAX, the number of passengers at LA/Ontario International Airport slid another 8% last year, dropping from 4.3 million in 2012 to 3.97 million. In 2007, the airport handled about 7.2 million passengers.
At Van Nuys Airport, a general aviation facility, the number of flight operations increased almost 4%, the first gain in years after steady declines. The number of takeoffs and landings last year was 268,531 compared with 259,132 in 2012.
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