In the courtyard of Palm Springs International Airport, Irene Dignon leans back in her chair, soaking up the sun at an open-air wine bar as she waits to begin a trip back to Scotland.
Palms and desert flora form a soothing botanical cocoon around her. A half-finished glass of chardonnay is on the table, a small indulgence at the end to her vacation.
“I consider myself very well-traveled,” she says in a Scottish brogue. “This is my favorite airport.”
Dignon is among a steady stream of visitors from around the globe who have helped turn this former military base into one of the fastest-growing commercial airports in the West and an increasingly popular alternative to Southern California’s larger, more congested aviation hubs.
During the last decade and despite the recession, the number of passengers using Palm Springs International has grown 55.5%. Last year alone, the passenger count jumped more than 14% to almost 1.73 million, a blistering pace by industry standards. And, if Federal Aviation Administration projections prove accurate, Palm Springs will have an additional 1 million passengers by 2030.
The rapid growth stands in contrast to far busier commercial airports in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California, including Los Angeles International, that have struggled to expand during years of economic head winds. LA/Ontario International Airport — an hour’s drive west of Palm Springs — has lost more than a third of its passengers and a large chunk of its flight schedule since 2007.
Local officials say that Coachella Valley tourism, now valued at $5.3 billion annually, and Palm Springs, the one-time Hollywood party town that has remade itself into a trendy destination, have fueled the surge in airport traffic.
Adding to the area’s appeal is the city-owned airport a few blocks from the Palm Springs Civic Center. It has a relaxed vibe and compact, smartly detailed facilities with the landscaping of a desert spa.
Though tiny compared with LAX, the airport’s courtyard and terminals offer upscale shops, eateries and a show business-themed restaurant. The layout capitalizes on panoramic views of Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, two of the highest peaks in Southern California.
Ground transportation and parking — the latter at $12 a day compared with up to $30 at LAX — are steps from the main concourse. Clearing the security checkpoints typically takes only a few minutes.
“It doesn’t get any more convenient than this,” said Thomas Nolan, the airport’s executive director. “We are doing what other airports would like to do.”
Hired in 2007, Nolan has worked to preserve a small-town, personal touch amid the growth, which has included $100 million in improvements such as a new control tower and regional passenger terminal as well as a remodeled central courtyard.
On a recent tour, Nolan greeted some of his 100 staff members by their first names and checked on luggage carts used by passengers. He gathered up bits of litter as he strolled the concourses and noted that he chose the piano and guitar music drifting from the terminals’ speaker system.
“How are you?” he asked passengers. “Where are you from?” Chicago, Boston and Vancouver came the responses.
The travelers come from 500 cities worldwide, according to the airport, and 10 air carriers now serve 21 urban areas across the United States and Canada, which has become Palm Springs International’s fastest-growing market.
Nolan says his operation emphasizes superior service for passengers and a cooperative approach with airlines that has helped to hold down their costs to $4 per passenger, among the lowest in Southern California.
“It’s a fantastic airport to operate out of,” said Robert Palmer, a spokesman for WestJet, a low-cost Canadian airline based in Calgary that has steadily added service to Palm Springs. “It’s tremendously convenient for our customers.”
Canadians, particularly western Canadians, are increasingly drawn to the Palm Springs area for the warm climate and to buy vacation homes. Palmer noted that the trip can take as little as three hours.
“You can leave on a Friday afternoon and be there in time for dinner,” he said. “You can play golf on Saturday, another round on Sunday and be back home that evening.”
Like other cities with flight paths over residential neighborhoods, Palm Springs has had to deal with noise complaints over the years. But it has handled them without resorting to the kind of flight and passenger caps that have been imposed on Long Beach Airport and John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
More than a decade ago, after citizens complained, the airport embarked on a multimillion-dollar effort to provide sound insulation for homes and other noise abatement measures.
And last year, local elected officials, the city’s Airport Noise Citizen Committee and then-Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) brokered a deal to sharply reduce the number of noisy Navy jet fighters using the airport.
Vic Gainer of Palm Springs, chairman of the noise committee, said airport officials and local leaders have responded effectively to residents’ concerns. He added that he was not worried about the potential noise effect from the airport’s future growth.
In addition to the grounds, travelers like Palm Springs International’s selection of low-cost, nonstop flights, which aren’t available elsewhere in the region, most notably at LA/Ontario, the next closest airport. Palm Springs offers 50% more direct flights to cities than Ontario.
“I’d rather come here than LAX or Ontario,” said Sam Poindexter of San Bernardino, who was traveling with his wife, Terri, to visit family in Minnesota for Thanksgiving. They had booked a nonstop flight to Minneapolis. “Ontario doesn’t have anything for us.”
But it’s the simple efficiency of the Palm Springs airport that attracts travelers such as Dave and Nancy Swenson, who had arrived from Eugene, Ore., to visit their daughter in La Quinta.
“It’s small and easy to get into and out of,” said Dave Swenson. “We choose this airport whenever we can.”