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Burbank airport's size is its charm — and limitation

I live in the San Fernando Valley and much prefer traveling out of Burbank airport. Recently I took a trip to New York; the options out of Burbank were not great, and I wound up having to go to LAX. Why can't we get the airlines that fly out of our fabulous local airport to provide more flights?

Marilyn Alper

Sherman Oaks

Answer: Money.

Thanks for writing.

OK, it is slightly more complex than that, but it does boil down mostly to money and how much is to be made, especially now that airlines have discovered how good it feels to be making some.

Burbank, bless its little heart, is a regional airport. It might be the little engine that could — as in "could make air travel less nightmarish" and does — but here's one thing it probably can't do: It can't get bigger.

"You have to realize we cannot lengthen or add to our runways," said Lucy Burghdorf, a representative of Burbank Bob Hope airport, "We are land-bound."

So you will not see an A380 airliner landing at Burbank and disgorging 500 or more passengers. Don't look for a Boeing 777 letting off 350 or more passengers either.

Instead, LAX will be the place those aircraft go, partly because its facilities can physically handle such behemoths.

But there's another, even more important reason we won't see more (or bigger) flights to more places from Burbank, said Jan Brueckner, a professor of economics at UC Irvine.

"LAX isn't, strictly speaking, a hub airport (like Atlanta, Chicago or Dallas), but it's close to being one," he said in an email. "As a result, there's a fair amount of connecting traffic there, especially passengers connecting to Asian flights.

"If an airline were to send a plane to Burbank from an airport in the Midwest or on the East Coast, connections are effectively ruled out for passengers on that plane.

So while benefiting some local residents, the airline gives up something by operating that flight — the ability to serve passengers connecting to flights across the Pacific."

Further, Brueckner said, fewer flights from LAX affect the choices that travelers have — mostly business travelers, who are the 800-pound gorillas of air travel.

"An undesirable reduction in LAX frequencies is another loss for the airline in moving flights to Burbank," he said.

Loss. There's a word we regularly associated with airlines until about five years ago. In 2014 the 27 airlines that serve passengers in the U.S. reported $7.5 billion in net income, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. It was also the fifth year in a row that airlines reported an after-tax net profit, BTS said.

That's a refreshing change for an industry whose fortunes (or lack thereof) have been buffeted by huge labor costs, overcapacity, gargantuan changes in fuel prices and more since airlines were deregulated in 1978.

We've seen big names in airlines disappear. (Remember Pan Am, TWA, Braniff, Eastern, Aloha?) We've seen airlines declare bankruptcy (Delta, United, American). We've seen mergers (Delta and Northwest, Southwest and Air Tran, American and US Airways [still underway] and United and Continental). We've seen seat capacity reduced and load factors — more seats in seats — increase.

Could it be that the airlines' financial equations are finally course-correcting?

If that's the case, you may find some improvements in airline service from smaller airports, many of which saw their passenger numbers decline when the economy did its swan dive starting in 2008.

Just a year before that, Burbank served 5.9-million passengers; in 2014, that number dropped to 3.8 million.

Numbers of flights tell part of that story: "In 2007, American Airlines flew five departure flights on average per day to Dallas and then left in 2008," Burghdorf said of Burbank. "JetBlue was flying five departure flights per day to New York and now is down to one departure flight per day, and Southwest was flying an average of 57 departure flights per day versus an average of 44 departure flights per day, Mondays through Fridays."

Airlines shed less-profitable flights and focused their attention on where the money was.

And that's where the money still is, although as airlines feel a little relief from financial pressures, they may add service. Southwest, for instance, recently announced it would add nonstop service to San Francisco from Burbank.

Burbank will probably continue to do what it does best, and that is serving California and some other destinations with the greatest number of flights.

Coincidentally, after the question from Alper, I flew back to Burbank from Oakland at the end of the Fourth of July weekend. I deplaned, collected my luggage from the carousel and was in my car in less than 25 minutes. Burbank is not LAX, and for this, I remain hugely and profoundly grateful.

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