Doubling of Region's Air Traffic Predicted

Times Staff Writers

The forecast called for flight delays, long lines and heavy traffic at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday. But passengers and airport officials said the start of the holiday travel season was as easy as pumpkin pie.

"I gave myself extra time today because I knew it might be crowded," said traveler Chris Johnston, 36. "But everything's been running smoothly."

The unexpected calm at LAX was due in part to a steady decline in traffic since Sept. 11, 2001, a phenomenon repeated at a number of major airport hubs, officials said. But a new report by the Southern California Assn. of Governments predicts a dramatic turnaround.

SCAG's 2004 transportation proposal predicts that air traffic will double over the next three decades and calls for major expansions at smaller airports in north Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire.

Although LAX would remain the region's hub, most of the growth under SCAG's proposal would be shifted to airports in Palmdale, Riverside County, Victorville and San Bernardino.

SCAG has long proposed having outlying airports handle a greater share of Southern California's air passenger volume. But its efforts are often met with opposition from some communities as well as airlines. SCAG, a regional planning agency, has no authority over airports or land use, and its plans are advisory only.

Its 2004 transportation proposal says that Palmdale Airport -- abandoned by airlines since 1998 for lack of business -- would grow into Southern California's third-largest airport by 2030 and become an international hub handling 12.8 million passengers annually. San Bernardino International Airport, which currently has only general aviation and air cargo service, would be transformed into a regional powerhouse serving 8.7 million travelers a year, surpassing the current volume of Burbank and John Wayne airports.

In Victorville, the former George Air Force Base -- now Southern California Logistics Airport -- would serve 4 million passengers a year. March Inland Port Airport in Riverside County, next to the March Air Reserve Base, would handle 8 million travelers, according to the proposal.

The proposal projects that the annual passenger volume at LAX would increase to 78 million travelers from 56.2 million last year and more than quadruple at Ontario, to 30 million.

Some officials voiced hearty support for SCAG's plan to decentralize the region's air traffic.The Inland Empire "is where the growth is, and this is where the service needs to be for the people," said June Durr, spokeswoman for San Bernardino Mayor Judith Valles, who is a member of a coalition promoting better regional airport planning.

But others called the proposal overly ambitious.

Designating Palmdale as an international hub "doesn't stand in the face of market realities," said the city's mayor, Jim Ledford, who co-chairs a group that has been trying unsuccessfully for the last few years to lure commercial carriers back to the north county. "I'm not sure how realistic [SCAG's] assumptions are."

Jim Ritchie, deputy director for long-range planning for Los Angeles World Airports, said the forecasts for LAX and Ontario are in line with the analyses by his agency, which oversees those airports. But, he added, "My knee-jerk reaction is 12 [million] is ambitious for Palmdale."

SCAG's executive director, Mark A. Pisano, acknowledged that the aviation proposal is controversial and that his planners struggled to reach their findings. Their analysis, which began two years ago, ran into complications last year when Orange County voters decided to turn the closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into parkland, housing and other uses rather than a commercial airport. That meant that the 30 million annual passengers that could have been served by El Toro would be redistributed to other airports, Pisano said. But at the same time, airports such as LAX and John Wayne face capacity constraints.

"So much of our industry is predicated on our airports, both for goods and people," Pisano said. He called the aviation proposal "the most important element" in the region's transportation planning because of effects on sectors such as tourism, entertainment and biotechnology. "The airports are really the driving force behind the economy of the region."

If the proposal is not implemented, according to the SCAG analysis, the region stands to lose the potential for $18 billion a year and 131,000 new jobs.

The preliminary draft of SCAG's proposal is being circulated for public comment until Jan. 16. It is scheduled for an approval vote by the agency's governing council in April.

Although SCAG can't implement projects, they must be included in its regional plan (updated every three years) to get state and federal funding.

The plan's backbone is a high-speed, magnetically powered railway -- a so-called maglev system -- that would eventually connect all the airports via 275 miles of track. Another is centralized coordination of planning, construction and operations for all the airports.

The report forecasts that the volume of travelers in the region, which last year was 77.8 million passengers, would grow to 170 million by 2030 if airport planning were coordinated and the maglev system built. Without those improvements, growth would be constrained to 140.8 million travelers annually.

Charles Lombardo, president of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, said Burbank, at least, does "not have the physical ability to handle" the number of passengers SCAG anticipates, 10.7 million annually.

He also questioned the feasibility of maglev. "It sounds like a magic carpet ride to nowhere," he said. "It's a utopian dream."

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