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Can WinAir Lift Up Long Beach Airport?

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

The Long Beach Airport, which has languished for years as an underexploited resource for travelers, is suddenly buzzing with talk of a new airline and new possibilities.

Given the low success rate of start-up airlines everywhere, there’s no telling how long this new enterprise, called WinAir, will survive. But if the airline can live up to its pledges, a few million consumers in southern Los Angeles County and northern Orange County may have a new departure point to consider.

WinAir is a Salt Lake City-based outfit with four leased Boeing 737s and a dream of flying daily from Long Beach to five major Western cities.

On Monday the airline is scheduled to begin flying at least two flights daily to Sacramento, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Seattle. Service to Oakland is to follow beginning Nov. 22, and the airline has pledged that by March 1, its daily departure count will grow from 10 or 12 to 29. Introductory one-way prices (good through Nov. 18) begin at $29 to Las Vegas, $39 to Salt Lake City, $49 to Sacramento and $79 to Seattle. After Nov. 18, prices with 14-day advance purchase will rise to $49 to Las Vegas, $59 to Sacramento, $69 to Salt Lake City and $109 to Seattle; the Oakland fare will be $49. Passenger facility charges could add as much as $6 to those prices.

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If this fledgling enterprise lasts, a lot of travelers could avoid a lot of human and vehicular congestion and, if fares stay down, maybe save some money. But the record of start-up airlines nationwide is a cautionary tale, and Long Beach has seen many ambitions crumble.

WinAir officials maintain that they have solid financial underpinning, deep management experience in aviation and a slate of mostly north-south flights that fills a gap in the marketplace. The airline’s chairman, Richard Winwood, only entered the aviation industry in 1994 after making a name as a co-founder of the firm that developed the Franklin Day Planner. But three of his senior staffers are alumni of Morris Air, a successful small carrier that was bought by Southwest Airlines in 1993.

Linda Howell-DiMario, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the local community, which has split into factions over airport issues before, “seems to be in pretty good harmony” over WinAir so far.

WinAir flew its first charter flights in January 1998. Officials tick off a client list that runs from the Utah Jazz basketball team (which flew WinAir to its playoff games last spring) to U.S. marshals (who use WinAir to transport illegal immigrants to a processing facility in El Paso) to a wholesale tour operator flying vacationers from Newark to Florida and South Carolina. The carrier’s reservation agents there have been selling tickets for travel to and from Long Beach since Oct. 1.

The carrier completed its Federal Aviation Administration Airworthiness requirements in January, and is cleared for service as a “direct-sale public charter” carrier. WinAir does hope to win classification as a scheduled carrier, and on Sept. 14 applied for that status. A DOT spokesman said the application is “under review.” But DOT and airline officials affirm that WinAir already has all the approvals it needs to begin Long Beach service.

For the Long Beach Airport, which dates back to 1923 and remains busy with general aviation uses, WinAir represents the possible end of a long passenger-carrier drought. The airport has 41 “slots"--that is, space, time and government permission for 41 daily departures. But while airlines have fought bitterly over slots at major airports throughout the U.S. and Europe in recent years, most of Long Beach’s have gone unused.

“The last time that they were all in use was mid-1991,” says airport administrative officer Willie Miranda. “We had Alaska, American, America West, Continental, Delta, Federal Express, TWA, United, UPS and US Airways.”

Beginning in the early 1980s, community groups challenged airport noise levels (the runways, north of Interstate 405 near Signal Hill, are surrounded by housing), and city officials began tussling with airlines over slot allotment. Soon the argument had spilled into court, and though a compromise was eventually reached, the dispute left airlines wary.

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One by one, major carriers fled Long Beach. After the departure of Alaska Airlines a few years ago, only America West, American and a few cargo carriers remained. One ground-crew worker called Long Beach “the incredible shrinking airport.” (Meanwhile, at airline-friendlier John Wayne Airport in Orange County, passenger traffic grew from about 5 million in 1990 to more than 7.5 million last year.)

Through the 1990s, several fledgling low-cost airlines have tried to take advantage of the underused facility and tap the enormous market of travelers in surrounding areas. One planned an all-Pacific Coast route system. Another proposed a flight a day to Belize. Among the last was CalJet, which just two years ago was advertising service to cities including San Francisco and Las Vegas. All aborted. Insufficient financing, officials say, has been the culprit.

Combined passenger arrivals and departures at the Long Beach facility in 1997 amounted to just 611,000--one passenger for every 98 that passed through LAX, one for every 7.7 through the Burbank airport, one for every 12.6 through John Wayne Airport. As of early October, Long Beach Airport’s entire scheduled passenger service amounted to six daily America West flights to Phoenix and four American flights daily to Dallas-Fort Worth.

If WinAir succeeds in its plan to use 29 of the 41 slots at Long Beach, airport officials are forecasting “close to 2 million” yearly arrivals and departures.

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WinAir flies 737s, which hold about 110 seats each, and offers assigned seating. Tickets are available through travel agents or the airline’s toll-free number at (877) 4-WINAIR. WinAir spokeswoman Kathy Archibald says Las Vegas flights have sold fastest so far.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper’s expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.


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