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Population Growth Could Make Palmdale Airport Viable, Study Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This High Desert city’s airfield could become a viable commercial airport handling 6 1/2 million passengers a year in 2020 if the region’s population keeps swelling, according to a preliminary study by a city airport consultant.

While that would place the airport firmly in the company of other regional airports in Burbank and Ontario, it would do little to relieve the rising congestion at Los Angeles International Airport, airport officials said.

“If it diverts some traffic, that’s not a problem for us,” said Jack Driscoll, general manager of the Los Angeles city Department of Airports.

“It serves a population base that needs to be served. Is it a replacement for LAX? I don’t think so.”

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While the final study by Arlington, Va.-based Hagler-Bailly is still months away, the findings released Monday made clear that Palmdale’s fate remains up in the air.

Growth at the airport, the consultant found, depends on several factors. The population of the Palmdale area would have to grow at 4.5% per year for 12 years and 3.4% for the next 10 years. Road improvements would be needed to ease access. Caltrans already has plans to widen California 138 and to add airport access lanes to the Antelope Valley Freeway, the consultant said. State officials also are planning a high-speed rail line that would link Palmdale and downtown Los Angeles, but have yet to find a way to pay for it.

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Another issue is the airline industry’s desire to serve the local market. Local demand for commercial flights out of Palmdale hasn’t been strong enough to attract many carriers. The last commercial carrier to serve Palmdale, United Express, discontinued operations there in April. And despite the Antelope Valley’s rapid growth, the Palmdale Airport would need to draw passengers from the San Fernando Valley and other areas in order to be viable, the consultant said.

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Airline officials, who traditionally have shown little interest in adding Palmdale to their itineraries, are expected to weigh in on the issue in a meeting with the consultant today.

What’s more, airport officials would have to contend with the constraints of emissions regulations as air traffic increased, the consultant said.

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The consultant’s early findings come as city officials are debating plans for a multibillion-dollar expansion of LAX, which is projected to handle about 98 million passengers in 2015.

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One ardent foe of LAX expansion, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, has touted the Palmdale site as an alternative and said she was encouraged by the findings.

“It’s a whole lot more feasible than some people think,” Galanter said. “I’m absolutely convinced that putting [expected growth] at LAX is a big mistake. We ought to be examining a whole range of alternatives.”

City officials asked the consultant to review a variety of other questions before filing a final report. Among them are the number of potential users from Kern County, the possibility that the airport could accommodate international flights, and the effect on a 6,000-acre installation on the site used by the Air Force.

The Los Angeles Department of Airports currently owns the Palmdale Air Terminal, which uses the runways at the Air Force installation. It is that small terminal that has been served off and on by commuter airlines.

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The city also owns 18,000 acres of adjacent land, on which planners hope to someday establish a large international airport.


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