After years of decline, Los Angeles International Airport is once again ascendant.

And at least part of the credit can be given to the massive renovation of the Tom Bradley International Terminal – even though it’s not complete.

LAX is on its way to a projected 8 percent or 9 percent rise in passenger traffic this year, which would far outpace the national average, and comes as new carriers have arrived at the airport and existing ones added flights.

Foreign tourists taking advantage of the cheap dollar is one reason traffic is up, but analysts say there is more at play: specifically, carriers jockeying for space to keep other airlines from grabbing more gates at the renovated terminal.

“The carriers play a game to discourage new entry by a competitor,” said Bob Mann, president of aviation consulting firm R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, N.Y.

In early March, Turkish Airlines announced it was launching service to LAX, its first flights to the West Coast, while Spain’s Iberia Airlines returned to Los Angeles after a 14-year absence. Meanwhile, existing international carriers such as Singapore Airlines and domestic carriers including American Airlines have been adding service.

According to Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that manages the airport, 26 flights have been added through July, while no flights were lost.

This year’s growth is even more impressive as it comes in spite of L.A.’s still sluggish economy and disruptions to travel caused by the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March.

Indeed, in the first half of the year, passenger volume rose 5.4 percent from last year to 29.9 million, according to LAWA. The rate of increase is exactly twice the national average.

With such a sharp rise in air travel, L.A. Inc., the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, expects an increase in tourists of more than 10 percent from last year.

“We’re forecasting that Los Angeles will welcome more visitors in 2011 than it has in more than a decade,” said Mark Liberman, chief executive of L.A. Inc., in a statement.

Global growth

With the launch of four weekly nonstop flights between Los Angeles and Istanbul, Turkish Airlines made LAX its first West Coast destination and only its fourth in the United States. By next March, the airline expects to offer daily service.

The launch was a big deal for the airline, which celebrated the announcement on Hollywood’s Paramount Studios lot in early March. Hundreds of guests turned out to sample Turkish food and watch performances by Turkish musicians. The gala event was attended by basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, who signed on this year for a two-year endorsement gig.

Fatma Yuceler, Turkish Airlines’ general manager for the western United States, said the airline made the decision to launch the service because Los Angeles “is a very desirable destination.”

Yuceler also noted the city has the country’s second largest Turkish population, and further cited the Tom Bradley terminal project as an influencing factor.

“As an airport partner, increased capacity of LAX is certainly favorable for Turkish Airlines,” she said.

Also in March, Iberia began offering Los Angeles-to-Madrid flights, marking a return to the city for the airline after more than a decade away. Iberia, which had served LAX between 1984 and 1997, now offers four weekly flights and is the only airline to fly nonstop between the West Coast and Spain.

Also, last month, Singapore Airlines began offering flights out of Los Angeles on its supersize Airbus A380 jet, making LAX the first point in North America for the airline’s A380 service.

Korean Air, meanwhile, is planning to launch A380 service from Los Angeles beginning in October.

“We will gradually expand the A380 service to major destinations in Europe and North America, such as Paris and Los Angeles, by the end of this year,” said Paul Kim, a sales representative for Korean Air in Los Angeles.

Big improvements

The rise in foreign carriers comes as airport officials are spending at least $4 billion on a modernization project for the international terminal, which opened in 1984, as well as other improvements at the airport. The 12 old gates at the international terminal will be replaced by 18 new ones.

Over the past decade, LAX has lost ground to more modern facilities in San Francisco and other major airports. For instance, growth in international travel left the Bradley terminal unable to handle all the passengers and many had to be bused from distant gates to the immigration processing area.

Still, local residents stymied various modernization and expansion plans, and it wasn’t until Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor that compromises were reached to allow the project to move forward.

Among the improvements, the airport will add 1 million square feet of space and gates at the international terminal that can handle new oversized aircraft such as the A380. The so-called Bradley West project is expected to be completed December 2012 and will represent the first gates built since the 1980s. Several domestic terminals also are being upgraded.

Michael Boyd, an aviation analyst with Evergreen, Co.-based Boyd Group International Inc., noted that airlines want to be in Los Angeles International Airport, particularly when the renovation work is completed.

Even domestic airlines are looking to cash in on the increasing demand for international travel, Boyd said. American Airlines, for instance, launched daily service between Los Angeles and Shanghai in April, becoming the first carrier to offer nonstop service between the cities.

“They’re adding it because they know they can make money,” he said, noting that strong international travel numbers could push 2011’s passenger count to 8 percent or 9 percent higher than last year.

Tourism dollars

The growing amount of international flights is providing a boost for L.A.’s stagnant economy by increasing the number of business travelers and tourists, who spend considerable amounts of money while away from home.

According to a study by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., each daily roundtrip transoceanic route to LAX generates $623 million on average in economic output annually, and sustains 3,120 direct and indirect jobs in Southern California with cumulative wages of $156 million.

Last year, more than 25 million people visited Los Angeles, with tourist spending generating $13.1 billion for the city, a 10.4 percent increase in spending from the previous year, according to the city. More than one-third of the total spending came from 5.5 million international tourists.

It’s not just international travel, though, that is making a difference. American Airlines’ regional carrier, American Eagle, recently added new nonstop service from Los Angeles to nine cities, including Salt Lake City and Tucson, Ariz. Delta Airlines, meanwhile, launched flights between LAX and Memphis, Tenn.

According to LAWA’s data, domestic traffic grew 5.9 percent in the first half of the year to 21.8 million passengers.

“It’s really demand for L.A. service is what it comes down to,” said Mann, the aviation consultant.

Staff reporter Richard Clough contributed to this article.

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