Palmdale Flights are Struggling

You know I love talking about my local airports here in LA and what I consider to be a misguided regionalization strategy. Well, we’ve got some news out of Palmdale that backs me up.

Los Angeles World Airports, which operates Palmdale as well as LAX, Ontario, and Van Nuys, put in $4.6m in incentives to lure commercial service back to Palmdale airport last year. United won the bid and started operating twice daily flights from Palmdale to San Francisco on regional jets. How’s it doing?

Terrible. So far, flights are less than a third full, and I’m sure that the second that subsidy is gone, United is out of there. The airline has already tweaked the schedule, but that hasn’t helped things. LAWA has made other futile efforts to make this work, like adding bus service from Van Nuys to Palmdale. Now, why the heck would you take the bus from Van Nuys to Palmdale 50 miles away when you could go 10 miles and get to Burbank with more flights and lower fares? You wouldn’t.

So now, LAWA has a new plan. They think they need more frequent flights out of the airport. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Instead of two daily jet flights, they want four daily turboprop flights. Um, have they even talked to United about this? The only props United flies under its name right now are the 30 seat Embraer Brasilias. These are slowly being phased out, and I’d be surprised if United was looking to start new service with them.

So what should LAWA do? Look, if you need a subsidy to make a route work, it’s not a route that’s going to work. Are there people living in Palmdale that want to fly out of their local airport? Sure. But I would argue that San Francisco is not the right place to go. That means that any connection to the east is backtracking, and it’s via an airport that has terrible delay problems when the fog rolls in. I’ve always thought that a US Airways flight to Phoenix would have the best shot of success, but with fuel where it is right now, I wouldn’t expect to see anyone taking that risk.

LAWA needs to realize that people are not going to want to fly out of Palmdale unless they live in that area. It may eventually become the next Burbank, but it won’t be the next LAX. The sooner they get that through their heads, the sooner they can stop wasting money out there and start using it on upgrading LAX instead. That will have an impact on a lot more people.


27 Responses to Palmdale Flights are Struggling

  1. eponymous_coward says:

    The difference between Burbank and Palmdale is Burbank WAS LA’s airport before LAX showed up, so I’d say it’s a bad comparison- Ontario’s the better one.

    And yeah, Phoenix is probably the better option, though I think the best one is probably let the damned thing die.

  2. Greg says:

    Well said. When will LAWA realize that they can get more bang for the buck investing elsewhere?

  3. CF says:

    Thanks, Greg. And I agree completely, but I only wish it were that easy, and in fact I should have mentioned this in the post. The mayor of LA is behind this strategy, so that’s going to make it tougher to override until we get a new one.

  4. Eric says:

    CF:

    They are trying very hard to condition travelers to fly out from other airports before LAX reach 78 MAP (forgot exact no.). What is your take on this issue, and with your airline hat on, where would you take your airline?

  5. Oliver says:

    I recently flew in/out of Palmdale and loved it. I wanted to go to the Ontario area, but UA’s fares from SFO to ONT are just ridiculous (and it’s on RJs anyway). SFO-PMD-SFO was 1/3 the price. LAX would have been a similar fare, but the drive time from PMD to Ontario seemed a lot more predictable than the LAX-ONT road trip.

    The only (minor) concern I had was that if the flight was for some reason cancelled, I’d be stuck in the desert for a day (it was a Sunday and they have only one flight on Sundays).

  6. CF says:

    Eric – I don’t see this as an airline issue right now. No airline wants to fly there, and that’s why LAWA is throwing money at them. LAX will hit a cap at some point, but it won’t be for awhile, especially with the current capacity cuts.

    I see this as an issue for LAWA and the city of Los Angeles. They need to focus on growing LAX because that’s what people want. Yes, ONT will grow and it should because of the surrounding community’s demand. But you shouldn’t force people to fly from a far away airport like PMD when they don’t want to.

    LAWA needs to come to an agreement with the community around LAX about continuing to keep pace with demand for travel from that airport. Easy? No way. But they need to do it.

  7. Zack Rules says:

    You know who LAWA should really be wooing is Allegiant Air to Las Vegas. They just added Santa Barbara and that’s a similar sized market. Allegiant isn’t as affected by fuel as much as the other carriers and is still in expansion mode.

  8. CF says:

    Zack – Not sure if that would work, at least not to Vegas. PMD is only 230 miles away from Vegas while SBA is 360 miles away through a lot more traffic. So, there may just not be enough low end vacation package traffic there – most people would drive. Maybe a couple days a week to Phoenix Gateway? Eh, maybe not.

    But I like your thinking – it would involve going for an airline that actually wants to serve an airport without heavy subsidies. They just have to keep costs low.

  9. Yo says:

    America West did fly PHX and LAS to PMD many years ago with Dash 8’s (Pre Mesa code share)

    It was announced with all kinds of promise and hoopla, this was when Rockwell and Plant 42 at PMD were still huge and tons of jobs and populations with good income.

    But, it bombed, big. If you can’t fit 37 people on a flight to LAS once a day…..

    Anyway, PMD is becoming the new MidAmerica airport, everyone wants it to be huge, except for passengers

  10. Feldspar says:

    Staying with UAL why not PMD-DEN?

  11. Oliver says:

    By the way, when do the subsidies for UA end? (gotta see if I can squeeze in another trip down south).

  12. CF says:

    Feldspar – That could be a better option than SFO, I’d think.

    Oliver – In this release it says it’s a 3 year air service development program. We’re only one year in.

  13. David says:

    United assumed everyone living in the Palmdale area wants to go to Asia or the pacific northwest so they used SFO. Years ago when I worked for an airline our express carriers flew from the Palmdale area to LAX four or five times a day and those flights were busy connecting Edwards air base workers to our LAX-Washington, DC nonstop and flts to JFK. People were willing to fly the short distance to LAX and connect somewhere, but going up to SFO if you aren’t going to Asia or the upper west coast it’s not worth the trouble.

  14. Oliver says:

    David, is it that big of a difference in convenience and time to go from PMD to SFO instead of LAX to catch a transcon to DC? I’d think driving to LAX from the Palmdale area would take longer or at least be more frustrating than the short hop on UX.

  15. CF says:

    If it’s government flying, then they’ll likely end up flying whomever holds the government contract for that route. Otherwise, they might be under a corporate contract, so it’ll depend upon what that specifies. If it’s personal choice, people would be even less likely to connect through LAX now that JetBlue has started nonstops from Burbank to Dulles.

  16. Oliver says:

    As far as I recall, pretty much everyone on my two flights looked like a “personal choice” traveler. Admittedly, it was Friday evening into PMD and Sunday morning out of PMD. The two flights were not full, but certainly more than 1/3 full. I’d guess maybe 60-70% full.

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  18. Jim says:

    One huge problem for Palmdale is the combination of elevation and temperature. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I did weight and balance for a foreign carrier operating out of LAX. Hotter air (as in Palmdale) is less dense; less dense air provides less lift on takeoff. A fully loaded 747 bound for Tokyo (not to mention an Airbus A380) couldn’t take off from Palmdale in the summer. I remember hot days even at LAX where takeoffs were a little dicey.

    Palmdale’s a nice idea, maybe with high-speed transit, for smaller hops, but we will still need LAX for the foreseeable future.

  19. Paul says:

    Brett, I read in the Antelope Valley Press that United came up with the idea to offer more frequent flights with 30-seat turboprops, not the airport authority. Also, the PMD website shows traffic for May that looks to be around a 40 percent load factor which is approaching the one-year goal of 50 percent. It takes time to build a market from scratch. More flights will give business, government and military travelers the schedule frequency they need. With gas costing $4.50 a gallon and the freeways jammed to BUR and LAX, it doesn’t make sense for the community not to use the service; when they do more flights and more airlines will come. Have you tried it?

  20. Kate says:

    Brett – As cute and adorable as you are, I have to tell you that you don’t sh**. You’re facts are wrong and you’re attitude has alot to be desired. If you want to be a “cranky flier” then report on actual service you’ve used and not bash efforts you know nothing about. So allow me to get you straight on a few things. First, LAWA did not add bus service from VNY to PMD. Supervisor Antonovich did and the service is from Santa Clarita to PMD not VNY. The bus departs from VNY bus station because there is no where else to keep the bus overnight. Next, we would have been happy to have USAir service PMD to PHX but guess what? They didn’t want to. So we had to go with the only airline that would agree to the service. Next, it’s very common for subsides to be given to airlines in small markets to get started. That’s what Small Community Air Service grants are for. The subs come from the Federal Government, not LAWA. And lastly, money spent for PMD service doesn’t take away from LAX improvements. So get your facts straight before you sound off!!!

  21. Kate says:

    People who are not in this business really don’t understand how things work. It’s very complex. SFO was the ONLY option for the PMD service. In fact, numerous studies and analysis were done and SFO was the most traveled destination from the AV. While I would personal like to see LAX added to the PMD schedule, there are specific reasons it could not be. People in the AV want their airport to stay open. PMD is like hundreds of other small community airports around the country that desperately need a “way out” of town other than driving on dangerous and overcrowded freeways. Wouldn’t you like to see less drivers on the 405? It can happen, if we can get the support and money needed to keep PMD going in the right direction. High speed rail will not work in Southern California and it’s just not an option and even if it were an option, the reality of it would be at least 20 years away. If you are one of the millions of people who bitch their way through LAX each year, give PMD a try. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Small community airports are the future because without them, especially in SoCal, you won’t ever get anywhere because you’ll be stuck in gridlock for the rest of you life. Keep in mind that traffic in SoCal is getting (and will continue to get) WORSE not better.

  22. Kate, you missed the whole thing that cranky has worked in this business…

  23. kate says:

    nicholas – I missed nothing about brett’s inept attempt to blog on issues he has no knowledge of. I began my career in the travel business before Brett was out of diapers. I work on a side of this business that he is not familiar with. I have met Brett and he has met me. He needs to stick to blogging about traveling and get out of the politics until he becomes more educated on how things work.

  24. CF says:

    Well, well. I go away for a couple of days and look what happens? I’ll start with Paul’s comment and follow up with another one for Kate (to keep this from getting too long).

    Paul – If I got the facts wrong, I apologize. This came from the Daily News article on the subject, to which I linked in the original post. I linked to a republished version though, because it is no longer available on the Daily News site except as a paid archive. Let me go through your comments one by one:

    > I read in the Antelope Valley Press that United came up
    > with the idea to offer more frequent flights with
    > 30-seat turboprops, not the airport authority.

    The article said that airport “officials” wanted to do it in the very first paragraph. If that’s incorrect, please send me the truth and I’ll make a correction.

    > Also, the PMD website shows traffic for May that looks
    > to be around a 40 percent load factor which is
    > approaching the one-year goal of 50 percent.

    This article didn’t have May because it was published before the month finished. I was going off the previous information. Either way, 40% is a long way from good, but yes, it is better.

    > It takes time to build a market from scratch. More
    > flights will give business, government and military
    > travelers the schedule frequency they need.

    I agree that more frequency is good for attracting the business traveler in general, but I’m not convinced that this is the right way to go here. Those 30 seat props will take about 20 minutes longer on a one hour flight than a jet, so that’s valuable time lost. Yes, if you live locally then it will still save you time flying vs driving, but there is still a fair amount of aversion to those props. The Brasilia is not exactly a spacious next generation prop; it’s loud and small and a fair number of people will avoid it.

    I think my bigger beef is with San Francisco as the market here as opposed to the frequency strategy. I’ll address Kate’s rant in my next comment, but in short, San Francisco isn’t going to serve the needs of many people in PMD. I’ll end it there and address it again in my next comment.

    > Have you tried it?

    No, I haven’t, and I don’t really plan to. PMD is a 90 mile drive from my home, and there are 7 airports with commercial service that are closer than that (CLD, SNA, LGB, LAX, ONT, BUR, OXR) So I would never be the target market for this route. I just hope we don’t see further efforts to move intl flights out there, because I’ll fly locally and connect instead.

    Thanks for your comment, and please send me info if any of the quoted facts are incorrect. (You should probably also copy Karen Maeshiro at the Daily News since she wrote the article.)

  25. CF says:

    Kate – I’m just going to ignore your vitriolic rants, because I see no need to stoop to your level. Instead, I’ll try to see if I can pull out some facts from all that noise and try to address them.

    > First, LAWA did not add bus service from VNY to PMD.
    > Supervisor Antonovich did and the service is from Santa > Clarita to PMD not VNY. The bus departs from VNY bus
    > station because there is no where else to keep the bus
    > overnight.

    Well if that is incorrect, then I’m happy to fix it. As I wrote in my previous response to Paul’s comment, the facts came from the Daily News article from May 26 that I cited in my post. If it’s incorrect, you’d be better served contacting Karen Maeshiro at the Daily News since she clearly has far more readers than I do.

    > Next, we would have been happy to have USAir service PMD
    > to PHX but guess what? They didn’t want to. So we had to
    > go with the only airline that would agree to the
    > service.

    That’s exactly what’s wrong with this process. So, there was an airline that could have made sense but they weren’t interested? Well, you have this subsidy so you clearly need to find someone before it burns a hole in your pants regardless of whether it’s a good option or not, right? It’s the best option available, and that’s good enough, even if it has a slim chance of being sustainable? I don’t believe that.

    > Next, it’s very common for subsides to be given to
    > airlines in small markets to get started. That’s what
    > Small Community Air Service grants are for. The subs
    > come from the Federal Government, not LAWA. And lastly,
    > money spent for PMD service doesn’t take away from LAX
    > improvements.

    Yes, it sure is, and success is limited at best. Here’s a little reading with numbers for you, but I’m sure you’ve already seen it. You say the money is federal, and yes, some of it is, but money does come from LAWA. In fact, this 2006 release says LAWA put in $1.1m into the project. While I suspect it’s more, I don’t have anything right here to prove that. Either way, that’s money that could be put into LAX if not simply used to help reduce landing fees (though admittedly by not much).

    > SFO was the ONLY option for the PMD service. In fact,
    > numerous studies and analysis were done and SFO was the
    > most traveled destination from the AV.

    So just because it’s the only option means it should actually be done? Yes, routes with higher percentages of local traffic tend to perform better, but what are the projected PDEWs for PMD-SFO? You can’t support a route from a place like PMD on point-to-point service alone, because it’s just not big enough. So while you may have picked the route with the highest percentage of locals, you’ve disadvantaged yourself by going over an airport that most people will avoid like the plague for connections. Not only are fog delays common, but you have to backtrack to connect to most of the country. So, you may end up with 10 or even 20 locals on a flight, but you’re going to lack the connections.

    This all goes back to my previous point. For such a high risk program where about half of the subsidies fail, you went with the only available option even though there are clear flaws in that? I’d have opted just not to go for the subsidy. Not to be too repetitive, but save your money and lower landing fees even further. That’s the best way to attract long-term sustainable airline service.

    > People in the AV want their airport to stay open. PMD is
    > like hundreds of other small community airports around
    > the country that desperately need a “way out” of town
    > other than driving on dangerous and overcrowded
    > freeways.

    With only a 30% (or even 40%) load factor, they don’t seem to want it to stay open that badly. The emotional argument just doesn’t work. People need to use it or lose it, and so far they aren’t using it nearly enough. That’s why no airline would go in there without a subsidy in the first place.

    > If you are one of the millions of people who bitch their
    > way through LAX each year, give PMD a try. You have
    > nothing to lose and everything to gain.

    As I said in my comment to Paul, Palmdale would be my absolutely last choice. I have seven airports that are closer to me with commercial service (CLD, SNA, LGB, LAX, ONT, BUR, OXR), and five of those have service to the Bay Area, so there’s never a reason to go to PMD. And why do all those airports have service to the Bay? Because there’s demand for it.

    > I began my career in the travel business before Brett
    > was out of diapers. I work on a side of this business
    > that he is not familiar with. I have met Brett and he
    > has met me. He needs to stick to blogging about
    > traveling and get out of the politics until he becomes
    > more educated on how things work.

    Ah, so what you’re saying is that if someone disagrees with you, they should butt out? That doesn’t seem like the more inclusive style of politics that I prefer. See, there are plenty of valid opinions out there, and I would recommend listening to them and trying to get more information about them instead of invalidating them immediately because they don’t agree with yours. This business has changed a great deal over the years, so while someone may have more time spent than I do, it doesn’t mean that I am somehow incompetent and unable to display my opinion.

    I don’t put all of the details of every argument I have into my posts, because, frankly, that would bore most of my readers. If, however, you would like to have a civilized discussion, feel free to send me an email or post a reply comment and we can have it in public.

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