Until they reached the airport Wednesday, the seven passengers booked on United Express Flight 7358 had no idea they were about to embark on a historic trip.
There was no fanfare, speechmaking, red carpet or complimentary cocktails as the seven boarded the 19-seat Jetstream turboprop. The only indications that anything was special about this short commuter hop to Los Angeles were the signs posted throughout the airport.
“The Palmdale Regional Airport will be closed after April 22, 1998.”
Flight 7358 was the last flight out of town.
Ever since the city of Los Angeles purchased almost 18,000 acres of scrubby terrain near this High Desert city in 1969, officials have dreamed of building a major airfield that would help fuel the northern Los Angeles County economy and relieve congestion at other regional airports, especially LAX.
But it was a dream that has not been realized. After opening to commercial traffic in 1971, the Palmdale Airport has been plagued by a lack of interest from airlines and passengers alike.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s prediction of almost twice the current level of air traffic in the county by the year 2015, combined with sharp differences at City Hall over multibillion-dollar expansion plans for LAX, have made solving the region’s long-term aviation problems a hot-button issue.
Although some Los Angeles civic leaders say an expanded Palmdale Airport is the best option for relieving congestion at Los Angeles International Airport, others argue that Palmdale’s remoteness and the airport’s current inability to support even one small commercial carrier doom any plans to make it a major transportation hub.
In the meantime, if and when the Palmdale Airport reopens and how it will figure into the region’s transportation plans remain very much in doubt.
Bordering the west side of the Los Angeles airport department’s expansive desert tract is a 6,000-acre installation known as “Air Force Plant 42.” Under an agreement with the Air Force, which had long opposed plans for a giant commercial airport at the site, the city was given use of the runways at Plant 42 for the Palmdale Airport. In return, Los Angeles promised not to build a larger airport there until commercial traffic exhausted the capacity of the existing airport.
Ironically, Plant 42 was once a Los Angeles County airport, acquired in 1947 but sold to the Air Force in 1954.
The goal of a thriving Antelope Valley airport was hampered by competition from other local airports in Ontario and Burbank, as well as a steep downturn in the Antelope Valley’s economy due in large part to cutbacks in the aerospace industry.
The economic drought led to the first closure of Palmdale Airport in 1985. In 1990, two new airlines, including United, began operations amid much optimism.
Efforts to improve access to Palmdale, 62 miles from downtown Los Angeles--including a 1990 proposal to build a high-speed magnetic railway between Palmdale Airport and LAX--have gone nowhere.
More recently, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, a vocal opponent of LAX expansion, gave her support to studying the feasibility of two rail systems that would connect the two airports--an extension of Metrolink and a segment of a high-speed statewide rail system.
That both of those projects would surely face formidable political and economic obstacles has not deterred Galanter.
“It would be awhile before those projects became a reality,” Galanter said, “but if we sit around and do nothing, it will be even longer before we can fix the problem.”
Despite the lack of commercial operators, Los Angeles World Airports, the city’s airport department, said it has been turning a small profit from the Palmdale property through lease agreements with aerospace companies and farmers, who grow pistachio nuts, onions and other crops on the site of what was once the city’s “airport of the future.”
Although the departure of United Express will mean almost $1 million less per year in the department’s coffers, this is not likely to put the Palmdale Airport in the red. Figures from the 1996-97 fiscal year show that the airport had revenue of $6,113,000 and operating expenses of $2,408,000.
The latest closure of Palmdale Airport comes as United Airlines is in the process of switching its contract carrier in several western states from Mesa Air Group of New Mexico to Utah-based SkyWest Airlines. SkyWest, which operates 30-seat aircraft, said current passenger levels would have made continuing the operation a money-losing proposition.
Mesa, which took over the United Express service in 1993, had been shuttling passengers between Palmdale and LAX four times a day on 19-seat planes, usually filling only about half the seats.
Los Angeles airport officials say they are looking for new tenants in Palmdale, but they concede doing so could take months or even years.
“We are trying. All we can do is let the operators know there is an opportunity out there,” said Mike DiGirolamo, the city’s director of airport operations. “We’ve talked to everybody. I’ve dragged the airlines out there and they just feel that there isn’t a market right now.”
A SkyWest executive said the customer base originally anticipated in the Antelope Valley by the airlines has not materialized.
“It’s kind of a vicious circle. Until there are a lot of people using the services, there’s not going to be a lot of operators out there,” said Steven Hart, SkyWest’s vice president of marketing. “But without many companies offering different routes, it’s hard to get people to use the services that are there.”
For those Antelope Valley residents who did use Palmdale Airport, the loss of United Express means long drives to Burbank, Ontario or LAX.
Lancaster resident Dan King, an IBM engineer who was on the final flight, said he sent an angry e-mail to United Airlines about dropping the service but received no response.
“I’m highly upset. This is an extreme inconvenience for me,” he said before boarding the 4:25 p.m. flight. “I often have to travel at a moment’s notice and I rely on these flights.”
Palmdale resident Genevieve Kneisel-Gledhill, like King, said she would be willing to pay a little more to avoid the drive to Los Angeles.
“I really don’t understand it. The Antelope Valley is growing fast and we need this airport.”
The FAA projects that LAX will reach 98 million passengers and 4.2 million tons of cargo by 2015, increases of 92% and 140% respectively over 1994 levels.
Mayor Richard Riordan has been perhaps the most vocal proponent of LAX expansion, arguing that the Westside airport is the key to the region’s future economic well-being.
Although Riordan and his supporters don’t dismiss the possibility of expanding Palmdale Airport, they argue that its distance from the city makes it a poor substitute for LAX.
“Unfortunately, there are those who would rather attempt to distract the public’s attention from the real issue surrounding LAX expansion--global competitiveness. They are unable to grasp simple economic facts, and to them ‘jobs’ is just a four-letter word,” the mayor has said. “It’s boggling why anyone would focus their energy on denying Angelenos access to quality jobs.”
On the other side of the debate is Galanter, who represents the LAX area and who has put together a solid and varied coalition opposing any further expansion at the international airport.
In March, Galanter succeeded in getting the City Council to include Palmdale in a $6.2-million study that initially was to focus on LAX expansion alone.
In addition to the fact that it is already owned by the city, Galanter argues that Palmdale expansion makes sense because “it’s the only place in the region where there is enough land and the support of the community.”
The Palmdale site’s 17,500 acres contrast with just 3,500 acres at LAX, which is one of the smallest international airports in the nation.
“For many people, LAX is not any more accessible than Palmdale. That will be even more true as traffic gets worse in the area,” Galanter said. “Over time, the majority of population growth will be in the outer ring of the Los Angeles area, including the Antelope Valley.”
As politicians continue to debate the future of the airport and Antelope Valley residents continue to drive long distances for air travel, the small terminal will remain shuttered and the few employees that worked there will look for new jobs.
The Air Force, which still owns the runways, will go right on using them from its separate facility there.
“I really believe Palmdale’s day will come,” said airport operations director DiGirolamo. “Once the population continues to grow, the airlines will want to get out there and exploit that market.”