Los Angeles International Airport is on track to break a record this year for airline passenger traffic.
Airport officials report that during the first six months of 2014, LAX saw 34,336,315 passengers, a 6.5 percent increase over the 32,217,517 during the same period last year. If the upward trend continues or strengthens for the rest of the year, the airport could top 70 million travelers.
LAX's annual passenger record stands at 67,303,182 -- set in 2000, and since then the numbers have fallen and risen in response to world events. The 9/11 attacks contributed to lower numbers in 2001 and 2002. The outbreak of SARS took them down again in 2003. They began climbing again in 2004, only to be knocked back again by the Great Recession in 2008. But since 2009, the ascent has been steady.
"That’s much better performance than the U.S. market as a whole," said aviation analyst and consultant Robert Mann, adding that the whole U.S. market is still at pre-9/11 passenger levels.
LAX officials attribute the passenger increase to the continuing improvement in the economy and to additional service on existing international routes by several U.S. and foreign air carriers.
International passenger traffic grew nine percent, with service add-ons by Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, Transaero and Aeroflot to Moscow, Korean Air to Seoul, and American Airlines to Sao Paulo. Etihad Airways also introduced service to Abu Dhabi, and Norwegian Air now flies to London/Gatwick, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Oslo.
The airport is in the process of spending more than $4 billion to modernize the airport, including the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Mann said domestic carriers want to make sure they're ready. He added that American, Delta, and United, Southwest, and Alaska airlines are in a competition for a strong presence at LAX.
"They’re really looking to align their networks for the future of LAX, which is a larger capacity airport, and they’re aligning their fleets with what has become a larger average sized airplane, " Mann told KPCC.
Los Angeles-based aviation consultant Jack Keady said LAX benefits from being the largest airport in the region with a combination of cheaper and higher-end air fares.
"There are more bargains at LAX sometimes because there are more carriers fighting for the passengers," Keady said. "LAX is the like the big 'Mall of America': you can get every flight to every destination in the whole world."
More passengers in the sky means more on the ground
But Keady cautions the downside of the growth in passenger numbers is congestion around the airport, as anyone who has driven to LAX at peak travel times has likely experienced.
"I challenge anyone on a summer evening at 8 p.m. to drive from Terminal 1 to United's Terminal 8, around Bradley in less than ten minutes," Keady said. " Traffic has grown and reached new highs and yet the traffic roadways around LAX have not increased by one square foot."
Some neighbors of LAX don’t think the airport needs any more passengers. They’d rather see more flights at other regional airports like Ontario. Westchester resident Denny Schneider acknowledges more passengers and flights are good for the regional economy, but much of the growth at LAX is at the expense of the other regional airports. Schneider is also concerned about ground traffic in his area.
"Not only are passengers delayed, but also adjacent non-related businesses, local residents, and all pass through traffic are delayed," Schneider wrote in an email to KPCC.
Schneider is active with the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, which joined the cities of El Segundo, Inglewood, and Culver City in suing the city of Los Angeles over its modernization plan for LAX. A settlement reached in 2006 included an estimate of 78.9 million annual passengers as a "practical capacity" for traffic at LAX.