By Noel T. Braymer
Recently there have been news stories that implied expanded air service could handle the traffic that High Speed Rail is planned to handle between Northern and Southern California. If that is so, what’s stopping the airlines from expanding service and flying more people in California now? In most travel corridors of under 600 miles give or take, High Speed Rail service beats air service in market share, door to door travel times and fare price. Generally the major airlines are interested making money. Revenues are associated with passenger miles, which comes with passengers flying the longest trips possible. Most air travel in California is fairly short distance compared to transcontinental or international air travel.
The most profitable air services are low fare flights based on the model of Southwest Airlines.These low fare airlines fly only one model of airliner: the Boeing 737 has been the work horse for Southwest it seems for ever. By having just one type of plane this reduces operating costs. Also when these airlines order new equipment, they tend to order large lots of planes, so they get a volume discount on the price of the planes. Also because they take off and land more often in a work day to carry the maximum number of passengers, their planes get more wear and tear than with most airlines. For this reason low fare airlines replace their airplanes more often compared to most airlines and have airplanes which are fairly new. Newer airplanes also means lower operating cost with lower maintenance costs. The granddaddy of the low fare airlines started in California shortly after World War 2. PSA or Pacific Southwest Airlines specialized in cheap flights mostly to and from San Diego or Los Angeles to San Francisco, San Jose or Sacramento. All low fare airlines fly only between major cities with heavy traffic. While the fares are low, the planes are usually full and have low operating costs and fly often most of the day, which is why low fare airlines are the most profitable airlines in the business. But they won’t fly to places like Fresno, Gilroy, Palmdale, Merced, downtown Los Angeles or downtown San Francisco.They won’t because there either isn’t a airport nearby or because the markets are too small to be profitable for low fare airlines. But when finished California High Speed Rail will serve these places and more.
There are many problems to increasing air service in California.The sky is the limit in the air, but the congestion is on the ground when it comes to flying . There hasn’t been a major new airport built in California since the end of World War 2. Many airports in California today are former military air bases built during World War 2. At existing airports there is no room as well as no public support to add more runways from the local residents. In 1999 the Marine Corps closed the El Toro Air Station in Irvine and moved the squadrons to the Miramar Air Station in San Diego. The Marines offered the base to Orange County expecting it would be used to replace John Wayne Airport which is the only passenger airport in Orange County. It only has 2 runways, only one of which is long enough to handle mid size passenger jet planes. Flights out of John Wayne have to take off at a steep up angle then cut back on power as it glides over Newport Bay so to not make too much noise. Closing down John Wayne airport at least for passenger service and moving it to El Toro would have allowed expanded air service in Orange County and it could have had rail service connections with the Irvine train station built along side El Toro. But the local residents of the city of Irvine opposed using the old El Toro base as a new airport and have torn out the runways and are trying to convert the base into a park.
Much the same has happened in San Diego. Its only passenger airport was opened shortly after Charles Lindbergh few across the Atlantic in 1927. It too only has one runway for passenger jets. It has hills at both ends of the runway so the planes have to make fairly steep descents and climbs when landing and taking off. This limits the size of the planes that can fly into San Diego. A 747 can’t fly with a full load into or out of San Diego. The city of San Diego spent years planning to build a new larger airport. The only 2 logical places were sharing the Miramar air base or expanding Brown Field by the Mexican Border which is used primarily for cargo flights. The Navy Department refused to even consider allowing San Diego to build an airport at Miramar. As for Brown Field, development around it made it impossible to expand it for passenger service. Finally the city of San Diego gave up trying to build a new airport and is rebuilding the old airport to handle as many flights as possible. One of the problems that San Diego has had is much of its air traffic are with small planes making short fights mostly to LAX for passengers to connect to other flights. Airports would prefer larger airplanes which earn them more money.
There are many intra California flights serving smaller cities in California such as Santa Barbara and Fresno. I flew on one of these flights after flying from Ireland to San Francisco and connected there to a flight to San Diego. The plane only carried about 50 passengers. It was a jet plane but didn’t fly as high as most jet planes. The reason for that is I think the plane wasn’t pressurized which would save the airline money. It was slower than a typical jet liner, which goes with being unpressurized since there is more air resistance at lower altitudes. Basically these planes would travel at speeds close to what high speed trains could travel at. These flights are not cheap to fly although the day I flew the little plane was packed and there were waiting lists of passengers on standby in case someone missed a flight which would open a seat on the plane. These small airplanes would not be competitive with High Speed Rail service in terms of speed, local travel connections or price.
The only competitive air markets to High Speed Rail would be the existing ones between the Bay Area and Southern California. This air market could be expanded with more flights from less busy airports such at Oakland, Long Beach, Palmdale, San Jose or Ontario. But this comes up against the main problem of flying, getting to and from the airports. Airports create a great deal of road traffic. Airline passengers have to drive and pay to park their car, take a shuttle van or drive a rental car to or from airports in most cases. The 405 freeway in front of LAX has been congested most of the day for years.This is true of most major airports. The advantage of using high speed rail is if a person is going to Los Angeles or San Francisco they can get to downtown directly by train. At the train station passengers can transfer by rail or bus transit to were they want to go, or rent a car which will take less driving than driving from the airport. The big advantage of High Speed Rail service is it will provide much faster and cheaper service to many more places in California than is economically possible by flying. There will still be intra California flights. But it will never be economical to fly from Palmdale to Merced or Fresno to San Jose or San Diego to Gilroy. But you could with High Speed Rail.