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By DANIEL TAUB

Staff Reporter

LAX is one of the world's busiest airports, but it's never been considered a "hub" that is, a place like Atlanta, Chicago or Dallas that serves as a connecting point for hundreds of domestic or international flights each day.

United Airlines is now looking to change that perception through both a major advertising effort and a $260 million renovation and expansion at Los Angeles International Airport.

But how can LAX be a hub?

Attribute it to an increasing amount of international travel especially to such destinations as Mexico City, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong as well as an increasing number of passengers using shuttles between L.A. and smaller cities like Fresno and Santa Barbara.

Five years ago, less than 25 percent of its passengers were catching connecting flights at LAX. Today, that figure is 40 percent. And even more growth is expected.

"We've been building for four or five years," said Peter D. McDonald, managing director for Southern California for United Airlines. "The $260 million is not going to be it for our time in Los Angeles."

United terminals at LAX are likely to become even more crowded. On June 10, SkyWest United Express a partnership in which SkyWest planes fly under the United Express banner will increase from 181 departures a day to 194. Passengers on United Express flights are typically making connections to and from United Airlines planes. Such growth will mean more revenue for the airport, because airlines pay a landing tax for each arriving plane.

In promoting L.A. as the airline's newest hub, McDonald said the point is to let customers know they can use United for most of their flights out of LAX both domestic and international and accumulate frequent-flier miles in the process.

"There's no specific date in time when you become a hub," said McDonald. "But we've been building for four or five years."

Some in the industry question how much of a hub LAX really is for United. Most hubs typically have more than just 40 percent of their passengers boarding connecting flights, said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines and LAX's third largest carrier in terms of passengers.

"I will tell you that (LAX) is far under the average of what is generally thought of as a major kind of connecting hub," said Smith. "At our Dallas-Ft. Worth or Chicago hubs, about two-thirds, or 66 percent, of our passengers are connecting."

But McDonald said that even at United's biggest hub, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, less than 55 percent of its passengers are connecting to other flights.

"Our hubs tend to be in pretty big cities that have a good amount of local traffic as well," he said.

United already is the biggest single carrier at LAX and has seen its annual passenger total there increase 14.2 percent from 12.3 million in 1995 to 14 million last year. Meanwhile its market share at the airport has remained essentially the same as the overall number of flights in and out of LAX has grown. Three years ago, United had 22.8 percent of the market, while today it has 22.9 percent.

Along with its $260 million renovation and expansion of terminals 6, 7, and 8, United is adding more flights. Earlier this month, the carrier increased the number of flights from L.A. to Washington Dulles International Airport from nine to 12 daily. It also replaced its one daily 767 flight from L.A. to London with two 777 departures a day.

Other airlines may soon be joining United in classifying LAX as a hub. Nancy Castles, public affairs director for Los Angeles World Airports, the L.A. city agency that operates LAX, said the airport is becoming a connecting point for more and more overseas fights.

"Today, less than 25 percent of our passengers at LAX are international passengers," she said. "Our own forecast shows that by 2015 it will be 50-50 50 percent domestic passengers, 50 percent international passengers. We see ourselves as becoming a hub airport United appears to fit this trend."

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