Riding the Freeway in the Sky : L.A.-San Francisco Air Corridor Has Become World’s Busiest--and a Key Part of California Life
It was just after 6 a.m. one recent Friday. PSA flight attendants Doreen Kamifuji and Chris Cramer were in the passenger cabin for Flight 1753 from Los Angeles International to San Francisco, preparing for their first onslaught of the day.
Their airplane, number N353PS, is an 83-passenger BAe-146. It is slow, noisy on the inside and more than a little cramped and claustrophobic, its detractors say. But it’s quiet on takeoff and landing, easy on fuel and comparatively reliable in a clutch situation.
In short, it possesses many of the attributes you might look for in a car for freeway commuting. The comparison is not inappropriate: N353PS is such a vehicle.
Its roadway, complete with the equivalent of on-ramps and off-ramps for airports, stretches from the Los Angeles Basin to the San Francisco Bay Area, a freeway so intrinsically a part of California transportation that its users give it and its complexities about as much thought as they do the concrete pathways on the ground.
Without discrimination, it accommodates business deals and football weekends, romance and grief. Its passengers grumble if they are late--and they often are. They lament the lack of hot meals, rue the crowds and complain about anything they can, sometimes with considerable justification. But they always come back.
Which is partly why this freeway in the sky is so jammed it makes the more widely known air-travel corridor linking New York and Washington seem like a country highway on a Sunday afternoon. There is no busier air corridor in the world.
On this particular Friday, Linda Zimbelman, a Torrance therapist on her way to testify before a congressional committee hearing in San Francisco, is the first of 55 passengers aboard N353PS.
Settling into a window seat in the first row, she carries a pumpernickel bagel to munch with her coffee and worries more than anything that a delay will make her late. “I don’t want a hassle,” she said. “And later on today, I want to get on a plane and get home to bed.”
Ninety minutes later, coming back south as Flight 632 from San Francisco to Long Beach, the plane would have among its 65 passengers Cindy Stevenson, a San Francisco operating room technician and her friend, Catherine McConkie, a respiratory therapist.
Both order a Bloody Mary and toast the arrival of the weekend. For Stevenson, the corridor is a pathway to romance. She had met Les Silversmith, a Seal Beach hairdresser, at a Bay Area party a few weeks before. Now he flies the corridor north and she flies south on alternate weekends. McConkie was along for the ride, looking for some sun.
In the 12 months that ended in the middle of last year--the latest period for which figures are available--8.7 million passengers traveled the corridor, compared to the 5.1 million that flew New York and Washington and 4.9 million on the New York-Boston run. A Federal Aviation Administration computer survey found that on Aug. 18, for example, 233 flights left Los Angeles for San Francisco, compared with only 132 Washington departures to New York.
There is no written history about the Golden State corridor, but when PSA first started flying it in 1958, the airline had just finished a year in which it carried 256,454 passengers in its fleet of four planes. PSA, a spokesman recalled, was strongly advised by other carriers not to get into the corridor because it was thought to be already saturated in terms of customer demand. By 1977, the carrier hauled 7.2 million passengers in 35 aircraft and, in 1986, 10.7 million people in 55 planes.
There are differences between this and other freeways, of course. Because this freeway exists at altitudes of 10,000-31,000 feet, the speed limit is between 450 m.p.h. and 500 m.p.h.
And there are similarities. There is a daily rush hour, in fact, several--spaced from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.--to account for the influxes and exoduses of traffic in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas that have nothing to do with the corridor commute traffic. The 7-to-8:30 a.m. and 5-to-7 p.m. rush hours combine with jams from 10 a.m. to noon, 2 to 3 p.m. and 8:30 to 10 p.m.
Just like the roads, the sky freeway is congested all day Friday, and Sunday afternoon and evening are very busy.
In the early 1970s, corridor one-way fares were as low as $15 during commute hours and PSA even sold books of tickets very much like those used by East Coast train commuters. The economics are more breathtaking now. The full, round-trip coach fare is $248, with advance-purchase discounts cutting it to $108. PSA’s “midnight flyer,” one no-reservation flight in each direction about midnight, is $44, up from the $10 it cost in 1970.
Like the freeway system, the corridor began to form in the 1950s, matured in the 1960s and in the 1970s and 80s has faced the pressures of growth and containment, simultaneously.
But in the corridor’s development there is also a significant and ongoing commentary about commercial and private life here. David Brown, regional sales manager for United Airlines--which divides the lion’s share of the market with PSA (American Airlines is a distant third)--said the corridor underscores the way California has been turned upside down in the last two decades.
“Twenty years ago, Los Angeles was not the financial and economic center that it is today. That used to be San Francisco,” Brown said. “You might (say) the time has already arrived when Los Angeles has supplanted San Francisco.
“L.A. is now the gateway for the Pacific Rim. You can peg corridor traffic growth in almost lock step with the growth of Los Angeles, which has been extraordinary. So the corridor has changed as Los Angeles has changed.” His vision of the future has the corridor ever busier, with the now-secondary airports like John Wayne or Ontario becoming mini-hubs. San Diego will grow so close to Los Angeles that its airport becomes the equivalent, in many respects, of Burbank, he said.
The result of this transit system evolution is that, between 6 a.m. and midnight, it is possible to go get on a flight in either direction from Los Angeles or the Bay Area about every 30 minutes. It is so taken for granted that, when a passenger getting off in San Jose brushed past flight attendant Chris Cramer and muttered, “See you in two hours,” it didn’t even get a rise out of her.
It is a life style that evokes truly autonomic responses. Standing at the front of the cabin at the conclusion of Flight 1939, from Long Beach to San Francisco, for instance, Cramer said farewell to her passengers. More precisely, she said bye or goodby 37 times and thank you 12 times. It came out so automatically she laughed at the count.
Flying in the corridor, pilots say, is a little bit like driving in rush-hour traffic all the time because, even in slow periods during the day, the routes are busy.
Joe Kessler, a 22-year-old PSA co-pilot who has been flying since he was 16 and has almost 3,000 hours as a commercial aviator, started his airline career flying small commuter planes in the East Coast corridors. He moved west a few months ago.
“You figure when you get off work and drive home, it’s going to be a zoo,” he said. “Well, it works that way for us, too, except that (in the corridor) it’s never like driving on a rural highway. It’s always like an urban freeway.”
Gary Meermans, a senior United captain who has flown in the corridor since the early 1970s and now captains 747s--some of which are worked into United’s corridor commute service, to accommodate demand and begin overseas flights through the airline’s San Francisco hub--has seen the corridor grow and change.
He recalls, as do experienced corridor passengers, that flights of 55 minutes or so, which were common in the 1960s and 1970s, have been stretched to today’s hour-and-15-minute average. The change has been a product of a variety of factors ranging from two 1970s fuel crises to airline deregulation, the 1981 air traffic controller strike and other pressures that have built up in the air traffic system from within.
Meermans talks fondly about the days in about 1975 when a 727 could take off from Los Angeles, make a right turn at the beach south of Marina del Rey and go as fast as it could north, making the trip, gate to gate, in as little as 48 minutes.
“There has been a tremendous change since the time when speed was the biggest factor,” he said. “We could literally taxi out any time we wanted and go like a rocket.”
Jim Vaughn, a manufacturer’s representative who lives in Costa Mesa, rides N353PS as one of the 81 passengers aboard Flight 294, the 2:20 p.m. flight from San Jose to John Wayne.
Heading home after a week’s work, Vaughn orders two beers and talks a bit about the 55,000 frequent-flyer miles he has accumulated in the corridor since November and the art of commuting. “So I happen to live in Orange County and I’m going to San Jose, as opposed to being in Orange County and going to, say, Glendale to work,” he says. “You have to look at it like that. It’s a bus, with wings.”
And if it’s a bus, the sky is the road, with, more or less, two lanes south and two north. The organization that maintains the corridor, the FAA, is rapidly implementing a plan that will make it a fast lane-slow lane system in both directions. The fast lanes will be reserved for comparative speed merchants, like Boeing 727s, which are can cruise at 500 m.p.h.
These fast lanes don’t run as wide open as they did a dozen years ago, either. They bog down at rush hour and the entrance ramps have the equivalent of meters. The corridor precipitates at least its share of grumbling about delays. Passengers who ride it--because many of them rely on tightly scheduled one-day trips--are extra sensitive to delay.
And the delays worsen as the day wears on. Air traffic, weather, mechanical problems and other reasons stack the corridor up progressively. By late afternoon on a Friday, for instance, it is not unusual for flights to be running as much as 90 minutes behind schedule.
On a busy weekday morning, said Ryan, there might be 21 northbound departures trying to converge from Los Angeles International, Burbank, Long Beach, John Wayne and Ontario airports. The 21 planes would be trying to squeeze into more or less the same northbound air lane. A still-experimental computer system, the equivalent of the freeway on-ramp metering system, determines the number of flights trying to jam the corridor at any one time and automatically tells controllers how to apportion takeoffs so planes are spaced safely.
Still, it remains a safe place to fly. There has never been a fatal crash on a corridor flight, said Don Early, air traffic manager at the FAA’s Palmdale control station--which, with a similar center in Oakland, divides responsibility for corridor traffic. The demarcation is an east-west line running roughly through Santa Maria.
These good intentions mean little to Dennis McQuaid, a San Francisco attorney who waits in the check-in line for United Flight 1119, which was to take him home from Los Angeles International on a Friday afternoon. He makes the trip from his home in Marin County about once a month.
Typically for a Friday afternoon approaching rush hour, United has already posted a 20-minute delay, which stretches to about a half-hour by the time the flight leaves. “I find it more frustrating at this end (Los Angeles),” he says. “There’s probably been a time when this flight has run on schedule but I can’t remember it.”
FAA records agree: In the first six months of 1986, Los Angeles International recorded a delay rate--defined as a flight that is more than 15 minutes behind schedule--of 15 for every 1,000 takeoffs and landings. By the first six months of this year--with LAX traffic dramatically increasing from 326,946 takeoffs or landings to 388,575--delays had more than doubled, to 36 per 1,000 operations.
By contrast, at San Francisco International delays declined from 62 per 1,000 operations last year to 52 in 1987. Weather plays more of a role in San Francisco air traffic than in Los Angeles.
The FAA calls its manipulations of the corridor part of its long-range “West Coast Plan” which, in turn, is part of a broader process taking greater account of the trend to “city pairs” in various parts of the country.
The California corridor hauls more of a mix of business and pleasure travel than its East Coast counterparts, airline executives said. And the East Coast shuttle system in which reservations aren’t necessary and an empty plane is pulled to the departure gate as soon as a full one leaves doesn’t exist here and probably never will.
“People move to California for a reason,” said United’s Brown. “They are coming from somewhere else. They don’t want to duplicate that system.”
Ryan spends most of his time trying to figure out how to get airplanes from one place to another. But the reasons why the airplanes are moving have not escaped him, either. “In a sense, Washington has become a suburb of New York” he said.
United’s Brown sees this trend as something that has its roots in the establishment of the New York-Washington and Los Angeles-San Francisco corridors. Just as Los Angeles and San Francisco necessitated, by their business and social interaction, the corridor that has developed, so now are corridors developing between Denver and Los Angeles and, Brown said, even Chicago and Los Angeles.
On this recent Friday, N353PS shuttles between Southern and Northern California all day, 10 flights in all.
At 10:40 p.m., it pulls into John Wayne Airport and its second set of pilots shut down the engines for the last time. That allows the third set of flight attendants to get off and go home. A total of 670 people rode the plane during its 16-hour, 10-minute workday.
Many of them, like Mike Smylie, a petroleum chemical sales executive on Flight 1939, said they could not do business as they are accustomed without corridor commute service. And, they have evolved certain skills.
Commuters generally occupy aisle seats, preferably near the front. They check nothing. At the end of a flight, when the aircraft gets to the gate, an experienced corridor denizen can fluidly unsnap his or her seat belt, pull a briefcase from beneath the seat in front and stand while simultaneously reaching to unlatch the overhead compartment. The maneuver continues as the corridor flyer steps into the aisle, grabbing belongings from above simultaneously. The motion turns into a step and, in an instant, the traveler is zigzagging to the opening cabin door. And with that, the passenger disappears.
A typical corridor commuter, Smylie admits he cheats a little. A trick he uses when he has a garment bag or other luggage to carry on is to put his thumb over the seat number on his boarding envelope so he can walk onto the plane with the first passengers. PSA generally boards the rear seats first.
Corridor flyers also travel more than anyone else in the country. United, for instance, says corridor passenger volumes have grown faster than the system at large for at least 20 years. The proportion of people who travel 16, 17 or even 25 times a year or more is greater on the West Coast than anywhere else--though United declined to make public specific figures.
“We used to have a guy who lived in Mission Viejo,” said Smylie. “I could leave my house in San Francisco, get to the airport, fly to Los Angeles, rent a car and drive downtown before he could get there.”
But if the corridor routinely accommodates its most frequent customers--people like Smylie--it generally is also always ready for people like Karen Treadway, who boarded N353PS’s late-evening Flight 497, John Wayne to Oakland, with her 8-month-old daughter, Jessica Bianca Sowick.
Treadway, a Huntington Beach resident who is a purchasing supervisor for an oil company, was commuting for a different reason. Each weekend, she said, she caught the same PSA flight to Oakland and, on Sunday afternoon, the 1:10 p.m. departure home. She flies the route to visit her mother, a cancer patient. Treadway’s parents reside in Castro Valley.
“It’s not a joyful occasion,” Treadway said as Jessica fussed in the seat next to her. “But these people do their best to make it enjoyable. I often get the same flight attendant.
“Someone will say, ‘Oh, there you are again, and there’s your cute little daughter.’ ”