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UNITED TO FLY FROM PALMDALE.

Byline: JIM SKEEN Staff Writer

PALMDALE -- United Airlines will begin service in June from the high desert to the Bay Area under a plan approved Monday to ease congestion at Los Angeles International Airport and develop Palmdale's regional airport into a commercial hub.

In a unanimous vote, the Los Angeles World Airports Commission agreed to negotiate a revenue agreement with United for twice-daily service. The pact would provide up to $2 million from LAWA and a federal grant, channeled through the city of Palmdale, to underwrite losses the airline might incur from providing the service.

``Today, we celebrate a great victory for regionalization,'' LAWA Commissioner Alan Zifkin said.

The move is part of an effort to ease growing congestion at LAX with the side effect of saving travelers from the Antelope, Santa Clarita and northern San Fernando valleys the hellish commute on Interstate 405.

LAX handles about 61 million passengers a year, and Los Angeles city officials have agreed to cap airport traffic at 78 million annually. Aviation demand is expected to double in the next 20 to 30 years.

Barbara Boswell, finance director for neighboring Lancaster, said the city would take advantage of the new service -- and that she would personally be glad to avoid the San Diego Freeway.

``If it's a choice between LAX or here, I'm coming here,'' said Boswell, who lives in Santa Clarita. ``It's no fun to be on the 405 anymore. And it's closer mileage-wise.''

Local residents are keeping their feet on the ground, though, having seen similar efforts to bring commercial flights to Palmdale fail.

``It better work,'' said Larry Chimbole, a former Palmdale mayor and an airport advocate for more than 40 years. ``I have to believe we're going to make this work. With all the talk of regional air service, this is timely.''

One big plus this time around is that United would fly jetliners rather than propeller aircraft. The flights also would be going to a major airport.

``This is the first real service we've had,'' Chimbole said.

The key, Chimbole said, will be in marketing, particularly to draw passengers from the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys to the southwest and from Victor Valley to the east.

``It's got to be promoted,'' Chimbole said. ``There's a fuel savings and a big savings in parking.''

The last airline to operate out of Palmdale, Nevada-based Scenic, operated 19-seat turboprop aircraft that flew to the North Las Vegas Airport.

``The fact we have a genuine carrier going to a genuine airport is a good thing,'' said state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster. ``Hopefully, we will demonstrate how this airport will be used.''

Runner said there are two ways to get airlines to the airport -- using incentives, such as the case with United; and increasing gate fees at LAX to push airlines to Palmdale.

``LAWA has the ability to steer airlines this way,'' Runner said.

Another failure would not bode well for the airport, Runner said.

``With each alternative you try, it reinforces in people's minds that it's not ready yet,'' Runner said. ``I hope this succeeds.''

Corporate travel will be vital to keeping the Palmdale service viable. Lockheed Martin, one of the region's largest employers with about 4,000 Antelope Valley workers, was consulted by LAWA about its potential use of the Palmdale airport.

Lockheed Martin had hoped for service to either Dallas-Fort Worth or into Denver. San Francisco is still a viable option, provided fares are competitive, said company spokeswoman Dianne Knippel.

``For long-distance travel, we will sure use it,'' Knippel said. ``Instead of driving to LAX, you can save some time.''

For her own travel, Knippel said she liked the idea of being able to use a local airport rather than get up very early to catch a morning flight out of LAX.

``If it doesn't cost me any more, I'll go to San Francisco,'' Knippel said. ``It'll save 2 1/2 to three hours driving to LAX.''

``This provides our customers in the Antelope Valley with additional service,'' said United spokesman Jeff Kovick. ``This is an additional service we're providing. We're not taking anything away from LAX. It's an alternative for our customers to access our service.''

Kovick said that if the Palmdale-San Francisco route proves successful, other destinations might be added.

A consultant's study for Los Angeles County, commissioned in 2001, stated that Palmdale could be a profitable market for an airline heading to a western hub, such as San Francisco. The report, prepared by Tri-Star Marketing, described the market area from which the Palmdale airport could draw -- about 600,000 people, taking in Santa Clarita as well as the Antelope Valley.

Such a market could produce 1 million to 1.5 million airline boardings a year, according to the Tri-Star study.

To attract an airline, a coalition of airport supporters put together an incentive package valued at $4.6 million, with $2 million slated to underwrite losses incurred from providing the service. That package includes a $900,000 grant from the federal government secured by Palmdale city government toward luring in an airline.

The Palmdale City Council will vote Wednesday on the recommendation for LAWA to negotiate with United.

United was endorsed over Delta Airlines, which also submitted a bid. Both airlines offered service in the past to Palmdale, but withdrew in the late 1980s.

The incentives being offered now were packaged by a coalition called Wheels Up Palmdale that includes Palmdale, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County government, the Antelope Valley Board of Trade, the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance, the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and the U.S. Air Force.

In addition to money to underwrite losses, the incentives include marketing efforts and waivers on terminal rent.

The LA/Palmdale Regional Airport is composed of a 9,000-square-foot terminal building and parking lot at Air Force Plant 42. Under an agreement with the Air Force, Plant 42 can be used by civilian airliners for as many as 50 flights a day, and there are provisions to expand to 400 flights a day.

LAWA estimates it will cost about $4 million annually to operate the Palmdale airport.

james.skeen@dailynews

(661) 267-5743

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 6, 2007
Words:1035
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