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United Express stops flights into Palomar Airport

Carlsbad terminal
  • Carlsbad terminal

United Airlines announced this week that it will be closing its operation at Palomar-McClellan Airport. Operated as United Express through their partner, SkyWest Airlines, the up-to-seven flights daily to LAX will cease sometime before April 2015. United was the only regularly scheduled airline to fly out of the Carlsbad airport.

This may be good news for area homeowners, who often oppose airport expansion — the same homeowners who purchased homes in the runway’s flight path. But for many holding tickets on United’s December 19 Flight 5346, they were surprised to learn of the change.

Christy from Cardiff says she travels through LAX on her way to Saskatchewan about two of three times a year. She chooses Palomar, even though a little more expensive than Lindbergh, so she doesn’t have to deal with the traffic and parking. “My travel is easier,” said Christy.

She said most impacted will be her employers at her office across the street from the field. “They often fly to Europe and always fly out of here for their flights out of LAX. They’ll pay up to $350 more just to not have to drive to L.A,” added Christy.

Fred says he flies through LAX about 20 times a year on business. This time he had his wife and two kids with him. They live in Carmel Valley, and though halfway between Lindbergh and Palomar, he thinks it is much more convenient to fly out of Palomar.

Blair was returning to his home in Houston. He regularly visits his mom in North County. “Now I’ll have to fly into San Diego and rent a car. I’ll miss this little airport,” he said.

Soon, the small ticketing terminal will be empty. United Airlines graphics and those of a planned California Pacific Airlines, which never got off the ground, will be all that remain. The airport, with its 4,897-foot runway, will remain open, in other parts of the field, to private aircraft operations, maintenance facilities, flight schools, and jet charters.

When Palomar first accepted commercial aircraft, America West Airlines serviced North County flyers with several daily flights to their hub in Phoenix. The cost of flights from Palomar to an America West destination was the same as out of Lindbergh, a marketing plus for the popular airline. America West service was shuttered when US Air bought it out in 2005.

Palomar’s convenience, ease of parking, lack of traffic, can be expensive. United charges more for their flights out of Carlsbad vs. San Diego. And sometimes offers long layovers, up to six hours, to connecting flights at LAX.

As an example, booking a round trip flight from Carlsbad to Chicago, from a Sunday to a Saturday, with a 21-day advance purchase, would cost $586 (Lowest non-red eye quoted by the airline’s website on December 19).

However, of the seven flights out of Carlsbad, only one had a less-than-two-hour layover in LAX. It was $645 round trip. The other flights, as low as $547, had an up to five hour, 35 minute layover, or added additional stops in Austin, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, or Wichita.

United offers two nonstop flights from San Diego to Chicago for $476 roundtrip. Flights as low as $378 could be found with one stop in either Denver, Houston, LAX, or San Francisco.

The reason given for the pulling out of Carlsbad: SkyWest is transitioning out of its fleet of Brazilian-made, 30 passenger, turboprop Embraer 120 aircraft. New FAA regulations starting January 2015 will make slower planes like the Embraer less effective to operate, with the new regulations regarding pilot on-duty times.

Unfortunately for local homeowners, corporate planes and chartered jets, soon to be the airport’s mainstay business, have been increasing over the years. SurfAir, an all-you-can-fly membership airline began serving Carlsbad to seven California destinations on November 17, out of the Premier Executive Jet terminal.

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Anyone who buys a home in the flight path is an idiot providing, of course, that the airport was there first.

Many locals are conflicted with this news. I won't miss those commuter craft passing over my house as they descend coming in from the north to line up for an east-west landing. (No, I'm not close enough to be under the flight path for all the traffic.) A few years ago it looked as if commuter service was at that airport to stay. The county ponied up the funds (how many $ millions did that cost?) to construct that sweet little terminal building, which replaced a much older and rather makeshift facility. Now it will go unused. Great planning and coordination on someone's part, but it's hard to figure whom to blame.

A couple decades ago, there was a developer touting investments in real estate in the vicinity of Palomar airport, claiming that it would be the "next Orange County" airport, referring to the huge growth that facility had experienced in the 60's and into the 70's. Oh, I need to mention that the ads ran in the LA area, not in San Diego. And they were less than truthful, because about 1980, the county sold off much of the land it owned that was north of the runway, which was developed for commercial use. Simply put, it would never be more than a commuter airport.

The cost and the layovers involved in using United Express kept me from ever using that airport, even though I'd have been willing to pay more to avoid the trip to Lindbergh and the cost of parking there. The price differential was large and the connections were not attractive. There's a wide open opportunity for some other commuter carrier or a start-up to fill the void. But don't count on that happening soon or ever.

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