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LAX Air Traffic Hits 9-Year Low

Times Staff Writer

When Sunland residents Alex Trevino and Marybel Marquez needed last-minute airline tickets to Houston for Sunday’s Super Bowl, they chose convenience over price and booked a flight out of Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport.

“It’s a 12-minute drive from our house,” said Trevino, a mortgage broker. “It’s so easy.”

Fewer hassles and a growing number of flights at regional facilities have prompted people such as Trevino and Marquez to change the way they travel, with the result that Southern California’s smaller airports gradually have been assuming a greater share of the region’s air traffic.

The shift is evident in new statistics from Los Angeles International Airport, where traffic hit a nine-year low in 2003 after a third consecutive year of decline. LAX still handles 71% of Southern California’s passengers, according to figures released Friday, but that’s the smallest percentage ever recorded.

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Analysts cite many reasons for changing passenger patterns, from the fear of terrorism or diseases such as SARS to personal calculations based on airport wait times and ticket prices.

“There’s a change in travel behavior that we are seeing all across the country,” said Paul McKnight, a manager at the aviation consulting firm John F. Brown Co. in Cincinnati. “It’s easier to find a lower price now than it used to be, and of course most of us are motivated to look for a lower price today than were a few years back.”

Though the trend favoring airports in Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach and Santa Ana has accelerated since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it’s not new. LAX handled 88% of the region’s traffic in 1960. By 2000 its share had fallen to 77%, and it dropped to 71% last year.

At the smaller airports, the changing patterns have meant a boom -- in some cases to record levels.

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Traffic at Bob Hope rebounded to pre 9/11 levels last year, with 4.7 million travelers. Long Beach Airport logged 2.9 million visitors in 2003, a 350% increase over 2000, primarily because upstart airline JetBlue made Long Beach its West Coast hub in 2001.

Orange County’s John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, which is popular among business travelers, served 8.5 million people last year -- more than ever before. Ontario International Airport, which is operated by the Los Angeles city agency that runs LAX, is close to levels seen before the terrorist attacks, with 6.5 million travelers in 2003.

Even tourists coming to visit Southern California have discovered its smaller airports.

“LAX is a nightmare,” Chana Andler, 50, of Berkeley, said while waiting for a flight Friday. “It’s confusing, it’s congested.”

Andler and eight family members flew into Long Beach on Monday from Utah, Arizona and Oregon to take a cruise to Ensenada, Mexico. Transportation to and from Long Beach was also cheaper, Andler said: The group paid $88 round trip for two vans; from LAX, the cost would have been $19 a person each way.

The trend won’t continue indefinitely, analysts say.

Noise ordinances that limit growth at Long Beach and John Wayne airports and political opposition to a new terminal at Bob Hope prevent those facilities from taking many more passengers from LAX. And airlines aren’t likely to shift flights to Ontario until there is greater passenger demand for them.

In addition, the sheer size of LAX prevents most travelers from abandoning it completely for smaller facilities. As the region’s dominant airport, LAX remains the only choice for most international flights and many domestic connections.

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“With amazing consistency, 80% of the passengers here on any given day are [also] LAX passengers,” said Victor J. Gill, spokesman for Bob Hope Airport.

Consequently, the Federal Aviation Administration forecasts that LAX will serve about 73% of the region’s traffic in 2015, up slightly from the current level. If Mayor James K. Hahn’s $9-billion modernization plan for LAX is approved, the airport will handle about 70% of the load. (Hahn’s plan proposes limiting growth at LAX to 78.9 million annual passengers.)

Today, LAX is serving 18% fewer passengers than it did at its peak in 2000. About 54.9 million travelers visited the world’s fifth-busiest airport last year.

The falloff is due largely to a move by United Airlines and other carriers to cut flights after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Only Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport and Boston’s Logan International Airport lost more flights than LAX in the last 2 1/2 years, according to FAA statistics.

Traffic fell further at LAX last year after fears about SARS -- severe acute respiratory syndrome -- prompted Asian travelers to stay home and airlines that serve Asia to slash flights. LAX handles more flights to Asia than any other U.S. airport.

The drop-off in Asian travelers, who accounted for one in four dollars spent by international visitors in Southern California in 2002, also harmed the local economy.

“2003 was actually a worse year than 2002,” said Grant Coonley, president of Gateway to L.A., a trade group representing a dozen hotels in the LAX area. “It was a very trying year for everyone on the [Century Boulevard] corridor.”

Declining receipts from hotels around LAX also affected taxpayers: The city relies on those businesses for about 35% of its yearly transient occupancy tax, Coonley said.

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The airport department’s finances have weathered the decline in passengers, however. Even though parking revenue is down and security costs are up, LAX is faring better financially than many other major airports, economists say.

“They have very little debt and tons of cash,” said Jessica Soltz Rudd, senior director of Fitch Ratings. “Financially, they are a very strong airport; they are our highest-rated stand-alone airport in the country.”

The airport also performed better than the industry average last year. Passenger traffic at LAX was off 2.2% in 2003, compared with a 2.7% falloff in travelers nationwide, according to statistics from the Air Transport Assn., a trade group representing major airlines.

Airport officials are optimistic that passenger traffic will improve as airlines add to their schedules at LAX this year. As for now, planes leaving the seaside facility are full, reflecting fewer aircraft in service there after the skyjackings of 2001.

“It’s possible travelers are having to choose alternate airports because flights are full here at LAX,” said Paul Haney, a spokesman for the city’s airport agency. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it helps all airports in the region to share in the demand for air travel.”

Frequent fliers Sally and Jerry Ducot would agree. The Malibu couple bypassed LAX and drove farther south to Long Beach Airport on Friday to catch a flight to Oakland for a weekend in the wine country. “We purposely chose an airline that went through here because we flew out of LAX twice over the holidays,” said Sally Ducot, 62. “It was just a zoo there. You had to allow five hours.”

Times staff writer Christiana Sciaudone contributed to this report.


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