With the freeways slowed to a nightmarish crawl and the trains leaving well before dawn, it was only a matter of time until some people looked to the skies for relief.
Recognizing an earthquake-borne business opportunity when they see one, a number of small aviation companies have rushed to offer service connecting the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys with the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles.
The latest entry in the field is Heli USA, a Santa Monica-based helicopter company that began shuttling people between an impromptu helipad at Saugus Speedway and Van Nuys and Santa Monica airports Thursday. It has the capacity to serve 400 passengers a day.
“It was delightful,” said first-time chopper commuter John Peterson of the 10-minute ride, which is accompanied by classical music. “It’s smooth as silk; you’re pampered--very relaxing.”
“Speed aside, it’s definitely a cool commute,” added Peterson, who lives in Beverly Hills and is an advertising agency executive.
Shortly after the Northridge earthquake, a pair of Van Nuys companies--Key West Air and Atlantis Aviation Services--teamed up to offer on-demand service--virtually an airborne taxicab--between William J. Fox Airfield in Lancaster and Van Nuys Airport.
A flight school based at Van Nuys Airport also joined the rush, hoping to match private pilots with desperate commuters looking for someone to ferry them to work.
Wayne Quan, a masseur who lives in Valencia, took a helicopter from Saugus to Van Nuys on Thursday because, he said, it was the only realistic way to reach his Westside clients, who footed the bill for his $98 round-trip flight.
“I tried to get in . . . but the traffic was horrible,” he said. “My clients were willing to spring for the helicopter because they didn’t want me stressed working on their stress.” He expects to make the client-sponsored trip twice a week.
Avoiding traffic at any cost is what it’s all about, say airborne travelers.
Helicopter passenger Peterson had driven from his Beverly Hills office to Santa Clarita on Wednesday. Once was enough.
His problem: He had to get materials to a client by 10 a.m. Thursday, and he figured his cellular phone bill alone from sitting four hours on the freeways would have exceeded what he paid for the round-trip helicopter ride.
Flights in Atlantis Aviation’s four-seat Cessna 172s take just 25 minutes from Lancaster to Van Nuys, hours less than the traffic-jammed road commutes that have become part of life on the south end of the Santa Clarita Valley since the quake knocked down portions of the Antelope Valley and Golden State freeways.
A one-way ticket on Heli USA is $59; round-trip tickets are discounted to $49 each way. The trip to Santa Monica is $79 each way from Saugus.
Commuting in fixed-wing aircraft isn’t much cheaper. Key West/Atlantis Aviation is charging $33 each way between Lancaster and Van Nuys.
“That probably doesn’t appeal to the low-end consumer,” said Lance Alsheimer, chief pilot at Atlantis. “There are lawyers and actors who do (fly). Their time is worth a lot of money.”
Kathy Kurasch is neither a lawyer nor an actor, but she said flying between Van Nuys and Lancaster is “cheaper than a cab.”
As owner of a Santa Monica video production company making a music video in Lancaster, she needed to get there to check on things. Flying was the only reasonable way to get around, she said. Since the earthquake crippled the Southland freeway system, Kurasch said, her primary mode of transportation has been plane or helicopter.
For Philippe Lesourd and his business partner visiting from France there’s been no alternative but to fly. Lesourd, who lives in Valencia and co-owns an auto auction company, found it was faster to drive to Lancaster and hop on a plane to Van Nuys than to fight the gridlock.
“Cost is not a concern,” Lesourd said. “Thirty-three dollars is nothing. . . . We can’t spend six hours on the freeway.”
Burbank Airport-based Argosy Airways had hoped to run commuter service from the Antelope Valley but was unable to meet federal requirements. To offer scheduled air service, approvals are required from the federal Department of Transportation as well as the Federal Aviation Administration--a process that can take up to a year.
For unscheduled flights--flights on demand or air taxis--the lengthy review is not necessary.
Since Argosy Airways is an approved air taxi service, it can offer on-demand flights.
“If somebody wants to charter me,” said Argosy President Gail Black, “I could do it tomorrow.” But, she said, to be both affordable to customers and profitable for business, she needs to offer scheduled service.
Recreational pilots are not allowed to haul passengers for hire. The only way a private pilot can transport people and take money for it is to equally share the costs with the passengers.
Julianne Feuerhelm’s West Winds Aviation is trying to coordinate a fly-share program that would match up pilots with wanna-be plane commuters.
“There are 800 pilots in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys,” she said. “There are 250 private aircraft owned by people in that area. We’re trying to get the aircraft owners and people who would be interested in flying . . . together.”
If the service can be arranged, Feuerhelm said, passengers would pay $15 to $70 depending on the number of people on board and the flight distance.
Commuters may agree that driving is a hassle, but it’s unknown whether they’ll flock to air travel. Heli USA, for an additional $10, will shuttle passengers from the airport to their nearby final destinations. Other air passengers must fend for themselves once they touch ground--which could mean costly cab or limo rides.
Business at SkyWest Airlines out of Palmdale Regional Airport was booming the first few days after the quake, said Ron Reber, senior vice president of marketing. But it has dropped off sharply.
Before the Jan. 17 quake, the company’s six daily flights from Palmdale to Los Angeles International Airport were about 35% full, well below the 50% needed to break even. In the days immediately after the quake, the 19-passenger planes were 80% full.
The increased demand for the $59 one-way seats had officials of the Utah-based airline considering reversing their decision to halt service out of Palmdale effective March 1. But Reber said Thursday the company would still pull out of Palmdale as scheduled.
A week after the quake, the number of SkyWest passengers had decreased to just 55% of capacity, he said.