Cutbacks and consolidation in the airline business are beginning to show up at the gate as Southern California’s larger airports showed strong growth in passenger traffic last year, while most of the smaller facilities suffered losses.
Los Angeles International Airport continued to dominate the region, with 4.7 percent year-over-year growth, topping 66 million passengers in 2013. John Wayne Airport ranked second, with a 4.2 percent increase, followed by San Diego International, up 2.7 percent. Palm Springs International, the single exception among smaller airports in the region, saw passenger traffic edge up 1.5 percent.
The strength of those four airports was won at the expense of Long Beach Airport, Burbank Bob Hope Airport and LA/Ontario International Airport. Long Beach had the most severe decline in passengers, down 8.2 percent over 2012, with Ontario close behind, falling 8.1 percent. Burbank traffic was off by 5.2 percent.
“Airlines are thinking, ‘Maybe we don’t need to service all these airports in the Los Angeles Basin,’” said Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, a Colorado-based aviation consulting firm.
He cited the recent American Airlines/US Airways merger as an example, noting that as the U.S. airline industry has matured, airlines are being more selective about where they can get the highest passenger loads.
“American can’t do a lot more in Los Angeles,” Boyd said. “It is not interested in expanding at Long Beach, Burbank or Orange County.”
LAX’s growth last year was across the board with equal increases in domestic and international passengers. John Wayne and San Diego saw passenger traffic bolstered by more foreign travel. Orange County saw international travel increase 63 percent year-over-year, while San Diego was up 21.5 percent.
Tom Nolan, executive director at Palm Springs International, said the airport, with just 1.75 million passengers, is beginning to reap the benefits of a $100 million improvement program as well as promoting itself as the more convenient and comfortable alternative for inland Southern California air travel.
While fewer passengers flew through Long Beach, Executive Director Mario Rodriguez noted via email that all of the airport’s 41 commercial flight slots, which are limited by noise restrictions, remain filled. The difference is that some airlines have chosen to fly smaller aircraft with fewer seats.
Taking the long view, Rodriguez said passenger traffic had held steady over the past five years.
“Similar to a private-sector business, we take a longer view, and in this way we have grown net revenues by over 50 percent and reserves by over 35 percent in a short four years,” he said.
Ontario passenger traffic has been on the decline for the better part of a decade, plunging 45 percent since 2007. The dramatic drop in passengers touched off a legal battle last year by the city of Ontario and inland civic groups that seek to wrest control of the facility from Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LA/Ontario. The department also operates LAX.
The neighbors say the department has focused on LAX to the detriment of Ontario service, sending the inland airport into a death spiral. Los Angeles World Airports attributed the passenger decline to airline cutbacks at smaller airports during the recession. Efforts by the two sides to negotiate a settlement failed, and the case went back to court this week.
Burbank Bob Hope Airport also fell victim to the changing airline environment. Victor Gil, an airport spokesman, said Burbank was hurt by JetBlue, which cut service last year from three flights a day to one. That was in addition to American Airlines, which reduced Burbank flights in 2012.
Boyd, the aviation expert, said airports are simply adjusting to a mature domestic airline market. He said the smaller airports won’t close but will eventually settle in at lower annual passenger levels. They will mostly serve regional destinations, while the larger facilities will have the coast-to-coast and international service.
“You are not going to see growth of 5 percent, 6 percent or 7 percent at any airport,” he said. “But go back to sleep. There’s no emergency here.”
(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.