Supervisors Urge Expansion of Palmdale Airport

TIMES STAFF WRITER

County Supervisors Tuesday asked Mayor Richard Riordan to consider expanding Palmdale Regional Airport in the Antelope Valley instead of pursuing a plan to extend Los Angeles International Airport into Santa Monica Bay.

Supervisors said that while environmentalists have already criticized the LAX expansion plan, Antelope Valley residents want a bigger airport.

And while the city might have to purchase land to expand near LAX, the city's Department of Airports has since 1969 owned about 18,000 acres of empty space adjacent to the existing Palmdale facility.

"This land was acquired specifically to relieve air traffic congestion at LAX," said Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area and sponsored the airport motion.

But Jack Driscoll, executive director of the Department of Airports, said big airlines have shunned Palmdale as too remote from major population centers. That lack of interest in the area is why the city has not previously built a major airport there.

In 20 years, LAX will handle 98 million passengers, almost double the current 54 million, and freight tonnage is projected to increase from 1.7 million tons to 4.2 million.

To handle that growth, the city is preparing a master plan for expansion that includes several alternatives, such as building two additional runways at LAX, one of which would be built on landfill in the Santa Monica Bay. The plan is scheduled for completion by the end of 1996, and includes such options as expanding other city-owned regional airports, such as Van Nuys and Ontario airports.

Heal the Bay, an environmental group, responded negatively to the bay option, and any expansion there would probably arouse neighborhood opposition as well.

The Palmdale site is barren desert near the U.S. Air Force's Plant 42 facility in a community anxious for a big airport.

"They would be happy to have a lot of noise and a lot of airplanes coming in," said Driscoll.

Frank Roberts, a city councilman from neighboring Lancaster and head of that city's Redevelopment Agency, agreed.

"This airport has been sitting there for years, and we've been working on its utilization for a long time," he said. "The supervisor's action was a good step forward."

At one time, the Palmdale facility--located on empty land in the high desert and sharing a runway with the U.S. Air Force's Plant 42--was envisioned as the site of an international airport. In 1969, the Department of Airports purchased 17,700 acres of land to build it.

The airport fell on hard times however, largely due to the growth of local airports from Burbank to Ontario, but also the entire region's economic downturn, Driscoll said.

Currently, only one carrier, New Mexico-based Mesa Airlines--which operates as United Express and offers flights only to LAX--flies out of the airport's single terminal. Skywest Airlines discontinued service there in 1994.

Now, the facility is skewed toward military uses. In January, for instance, there were 355 arrivals and departures of civilian aircraft, but 4,928 of military planes.

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