In the High Desert north of Los Angeles, under the same patch of sky where Chuck Yeager first tore through the sound barrier, Palmdale Regional Airport has been the object of grandiose dreams for nearly two generations. Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) purchased 17,000 as yet undeveloped acres during the 1960s as a portal for commercial jets that would connect the Antelope Valley with any other point on the globe. High-speed rail would whisk passengers up from the Los Angeles Basin to this new international air hub.
Three decades later, you can't fly from Palmdale to San Francisco, much less Singapore.
In the most recent effort to get even a modest vision off the ground, United Airlines initiated in May 2007 two daily nonstops to SFO from the rechristened LA/Palmdale Airport (PMD), which had operated from Air Force Plant 42 since 1971. United was the eighth carrier to operate from this rinky-dink terminal amid the Joshua trees, but 18 months later, in December 2008, United cancelled the service. United's departure creates more than an inconvenience for High Desert dwellers. It marks perhaps the most grave setback in a long, frustrating effort to spread Southern California's immense amount of air traffic more evenly across the region.
"Palmdale is basically the lifeline of the future," said University of California, San Diego, political science professor Steve Erie, a longtime observer of air service in Southern California. "It's just that the future hasn't arrived yet."
United had agreed to serve Palmdale in part because of $4 million in federal and local subsidies, plus a heap of enthusiasm. Wheels Up Palmdale, a coalition of the cities of Los Angeles and Palmdale, LAWA, the Air Force, and local business groups, had lobbied for the service and for the subsidy. Their goals included local economic development and shorter drives for High Desert residents who would otherwise use LAX or Burbank airport.
"[Palmdale airport] would have a positive ripple effect throughout the county and region," said Tony Bell, spokesman for Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who represents northern Los Angeles County. "It would be a tremendous boon for the area, improving air quality, the economy, and mobility."
"When we went up there for [United's first flight] everybody was happy," added Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who served on the Southern California Regional Airport Authority (SCRAA). "But I knew it was a stretch. It was more symbolic about what the future could be than the reality of the moment."
More than 300,000 people live in the immediate Palmdale/Lancaster area, with many more in the greater High Desert region. Smaller free-standing cities throughout California, such as Redding, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo, support commercial service. But, lacking major employment centers, the bedroom communities of the Antelope Valley did not generate the business United sought, and would-be passengers from surrounding areas did not materialize.
"There simply wasn't enough customer interest," said United spokesman Jeff Kovic. "It was heavily marketed by United and our partners in the Los Angeles area."
Because of freeway traffic and the crush of passengers at LAX, Los Angeles-area public officials and regional planning agencies have long sought to divert passengers away from LAX and towards the region's six other commercial airports (Palmdale, Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach, Orange County and Palm Springs). Palmdale features prominently in the Southern California Association of Government's 2004 "Integrated Metropolitan Airport System Plan," which had figured on up to 12.8 million annual passengers and $1 billion in investment in Palmdale by 2030.
Now, LAWA has actually relinquished PMD's Federal Aviation Administration certification to operate as a commercial airport (it can be reinstated), while jackrabbits preside over LAWA's 17,000 vacant acres. Proposals for using that property as a sanitation facility and even a solar power farm have recently surfaced.
"Regionalization is dead for the near term," said Erie. "There was some commitment on the part of L.A. and L.A. World Airports, but the problem is that they cannot force the airlines to do what the airlines don't want to do. Airlines fly to markets not to airports. And the problem is that when the airlines are financially troubled they cut back on particularly new, uncertain, and marginal routes."
As its proponents describe it, airport regionalization centers not so much on air travel per se but rather on the associated traffic and land use patterns. The hope was that public sector leadership could compel airlines to spread out flights among the region's airports so that fewer travelers would have to drive across the region in search of convenient flights and favorable prices, often found at LAX. The economic benefits an airport provides would also spread out.
Though few local leaders voiced opposition, the political will and infrastructure to make regionalization a reality never materialized, as unorganized and often mutually uninterested municipalities and rival airport authorities made coordination nearly impossible. The SCRAA, which had convened sporadically for the past decade to discuss ways to coordinate Southern California's 14 commercial and cargo airports, was only an ad hoc group that garnered little attention and, like the Southern California Association of Governments, wielded no coercive or budgetary power.
"It's difficult to coordinate the efforts unless everyone comes to the table willing to take additional air traffic," said LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey, who praised the efforts of both United and Palmdale's local boosters. "Everybody [wants] to push their air traffic somewhere else as opposed to coming to the table and saying, ‘Let's divide this up evenly.'" Lindsey noted that, since 1980, LAX's share of regional passenger traffic has dropped from 74% to 57%.
Whatever spirit of regionalization remains is now focused on L.A./Ontario airport, which can legally serve up to 30 million passengers per year but currently serves fewer than 10 million. The greatest long-term hope for Palmdale may therefore depend on the ground transportation infrastructure that comes of Los Angeles County's $30 billion Measure R, the 2008 sales tax initiative.
"To make Palmdale ever happen you need the transportation links," said Rosendahl. "This needs a 10- to 20-year plan with the commitment from leadership that says we're going to do it. And there's never been that commitment from the regional approach."
LAWA recently issued a post-mortem report declaring the airport currently unsuited for commercial service. Nevertheless, the City of Palmdale holds out hope that PMD can be revived. It may try to assume control of the airport and pursue a low-cost carrier.
"We're going to take greater control of our destiny," said Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford, who has championed the airport since he first took office in 1992. "It is an economic engine that we have not even seen the beginning of." Ledford added that he welcomes LAWA's involvement if it chooses to return.
While proposals for new airports historically meet with the fierce local opposition, Palmdale is eager to capitalize on an asset that is bought and paid for.
"We have what I would submit is the best land use plan for an airport," said Ledford. "We have the best buffering, we've done the noise corridors; the air quality zones off the freeways are in place; it's part of our general plan."
Ironically, though, the very same reasons why Palmdale will not become another El Toro – the former Orange County Marine Corps base that infamously failed to win approval as a commercial airport (see CP&DR Deals, May 2003; CP&DR, April 2002) – is the same reason why Palmdale is unlikely to become another LAX.
"The difficulty in building or activating an airport is directly proportional to the population at the site," said LAWA's Lindsey. "The viability of a regularly scheduled commercial service at Palmdale is a ways off. There's not all that many people around the Palmdale airport. That makes it difficult to build traffic, but it does mean that there's not much opposition." Except maybe from the jackrabbits.
Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford, (661) 267-5100, www.cityofpalmdale.org.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, (213) 473-7011.
Steve Erie, UCSD Department of Political Science, (858) 534-3083.
Gina Marie Lindsey, Los Angeles World Airports, (424) 646-5260, www.lawa.org.
Office of County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, (213) 974-5555.