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Only Slow Growth Seen for Palmdale Airport

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even if local officials build new freeways and approve a variety of other improvements to make the Palmdale airport more accessible--and even if the Antelope Valley area continues to grow at a rapid rate--that facility will not be able to absorb more than about 7% of the region’s air traffic for decades, a new report prepared for city officials has concluded.

Although still in draft form, the report has important implications for the debate over expanding Los Angeles International Airport, a top priority of Mayor Richard Riordan but one that is mired in controversy.

Its conclusions suggest that Palmdale could, if all went well, eventually support about 7 million passengers a year. That would be a major expansion of today’s paltry traffic there, but it still pales in comparison to the 60 million passengers who annually use LAX.

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Riordan and other backers of a massive LAX expansion--one that would see it grow to more than 90 million a year and nearly double its cargo capacity--say the project is vital for Southern California’s economy. Critics, led by Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, agree that the region needs more airports but they say LAX bears more than its share of the regional burden.

Galanter has touted Palmdale as an important LAX alternative, arguing that the remote airport’s expansion could take some of the pressure off LAX, which is in her district. Riordan has countered by warning that Palmdale is severely limited by its 60-mile distance from central Los Angeles.

The latest report, commissioned by the Los Angeles Department of World Airports after years of Galanter’s requesting such an analysis, is intended to offer the best-case scenario for Palmdale’s growth. At the outset, the report warns that its estimates represent “optimum theoretical potential. The actual result will almost certainly be lower . . . and potentially significantly lower.”

Predictably, the main factor limiting Palmdale’s growth, the report concludes, is its distance from Los Angeles--not only from its population center but also from its businesses and tourist attractions. That discourages airlines from locating operations at Palmdale.

The report cites as an example Southwest Airlines, saying that company follows a rule of thumb: It serves only airports with a base population of at least 3 million. The population around Palmdale is expected to be about half that by 2020, the report states.

One particularly discouraging conclusion for advocates of a larger airport at Palmdale is the report’s finding that high-speed rail linking that area to downtown Los Angeles would not significantly affect demand for the Antelope Valley airport. On Friday, Galanter said she was pleased that the city finally had commissioned a serious look at Palmdale’s potential. But she also objected to some of its assumptions.

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Specifically, she noted that the study does not consider increasing political pressure to halt growth at other regional airports. If expansion is blocked at other airports, she argued, Palmdale will become more attractive for airlines.

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