By HOWARD FINE
Carol Hallett has some advice for L.A. officials contemplating airport expansion: Don’t even think about Palmdale.
“There is nobody out there, and nobody wants to go out there,” Hallett, president and chief executive of the Air Transport Association, told the Business Journal last week. “This ‘Build it and they will come’ idea hasn’t worked with other airports around the country and it is not likely to work in Palmdale.”
Hallett, in town to meet with local officials and to address a business forum, said that instead of spending “multiple billions of dollars” to build an airport that is likely to remain underutilized, most of the money should be put into expanding Los Angeles International Airport.
“We have seen similar situations play out across the country, where a number of places try to jump-start an economy by building an airport,” Hallett said. “All of these places the airlines say don’t make sense, but they (the locals) go ahead with them anyway. And sure enough, the demand turns out not to be there.”
Hallett cited two examples: Mid-America Airport outside St. Louis and the conversion of Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
“The Scott airport case even made national television. There was a bus driver on national television driving an empty bus around the airport. She said ‘I kind of like this because I don’t have to bother with any passengers.’ The airlines never came there and probably never will.”
L.A. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, however, is sticking by her pursuit of a Palmdale alternative.
“I’m disappointed that the ATA has taken such an adamant stance in favor of a plan to expand LAX that is doomed to failure,” she said. “But then again, I am not surprised. The airlines have never been known for their forward-looking approach. They are very short-term oriented.”
Galanter said that even if the LAX expansion goes ahead, it will not relieve congestion because there still will be more people wanting to use the airport than the expanded capacity allows. As frustration builds about congestion at LAX, she said, airlines will go to other cities.
“They will go to Denver, they will go to Las Vegas, so why not have them go to Palmdale? At least there they will be in the Los Angeles area and our economy will benefit,” she said.
Hallett counters that while other regional airports could be expanded, the LAX expansion is crucial to the region.
“It is the No. 1 origin and destination airport in the nation, if not the world. It is also the largest import and export destination airport in the country. There can be no replacement for LAX,” she said.
Hallett said the ATA, which represents the nation’s airlines, would probably have stepped up its campaign for LAX expansion sooner had it not been for the protracted dispute over landing fees with the city of Los Angeles.
In 1994 and 1995, Mayor Richard Riordan tripled landing fees at LAX and tried to divert money from those fees into the city’s general fund. The airlines sued, saying that money needed to remain at the airport for future improvements. The case is still in the courts.
“There is no doubt that our poor relations with the city over the past few years have caused delays in much-needed investment at the airport,” Hallett said. “But now, we’ve got to look at the larger picture. It’s like a marriage where there is an argument. Both parties must work around that argument to keep the marriage going.”