““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Look at an air map of the Los Angeles Basin and you'll see that this is a busy place. But flying into the area is the only way to fully gauge the airspace's complexity and congestion. The volume of disparate aircraft sharing altitudes, approaches and runways is immense. And that volume conspires with mountains, occasional gale-force winds and smog, fog and mist enhanced by humid air off the ocean to try the skills of even the most experienced pilots and air traffic controllers.
I once spent a night flying here with the L.A. police. The radio frequencies were so clogged that the pilot and spotter communicated through hand signals rather than trying to talk on the intercom over the chatter. In such an environment, passengers might be smart to keep everything stored, especially anything that could spill, 15 minutes before and after takeoff or landing.
That said, in a land of 24-hour rush hour on bumper-to-bumper freeways and even slower side streets, L.A.'s network of mature airports plays a key role in keeping the region's transportation system from imploding entirely. The area has no fewer than six airports that offer commercial airline service: Burbank, Los Angeles International, Long Beach, Palmdale, Ontario and Orange County. Choices for the business jet flyer are numerous, too.
Here's a look at those choices, and at the ground-support operations (FBOs) they offer.
With an average of 1,400 takeoffs and landings daily, this is the nation's busiest nonairline civilian airport. It's 25 miles north of Los Angeles International (LAX) and seven miles west of Burbank, and direct ground transportation to and from LAX is available via the Flyaway Bus. If you've seen movies such as Howard Hughes' epic Hell's Angels or the 1942 classic Casablanca, you've already had a peek at Van Nuys. It's actually the only airport I know of that has been the subject of a film (One-Six Right). Van Nuys remains a favorite movie-making venue today.
The airport is a history-rich, concertina wire-ringed 730-acre cornucopia of everything aviation in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. This is where legendary aviators such as Hughes, Roscoe Turner, Pancho Barnes and Amelia Earhart held court during the 1930s; where the Navy and Lockheed modified fighters and bombers headed for World War II in the 1940s; and where Nike anti-aircraft missiles nested during the Cold War. The 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant on the east side of the field, with its bombed-out WWII exterior motif, adds to the historical flavor.
Overall, the place reeks of kerosene and money. It's all here: beat-up cargo airplanes, warbirds (piston and jet), air racers, vintage aircraft, fire-fighting water bombers, more than 50 helicopters, military research aircraft, more than 400 piston-engine "bugsmashers," 26 turboprops and 171 corporate jets, from little Learjets to big Boeing Business Jets. The characters to go with those interesting airplanes are here, too.
You can often find some of them at the Clipper Club Lounge at the Airtel Plaza, an aviation-themed, full-service hotel located right on the airport. You can actually taxi your airplane right up to the Airtel and walk in. An enormous 24-foot-long, 900-pound metal model of a Boeing 747 hangs from the hotel's lobby ceiling and aviation memorabilia is on display throughout the facility. The Airtel features world-class jazz artists weekly and a hip new menu. Considering its location, room rates are very reasonable, around $100 per night. The hotel is just two blocks from the Flyaway bus terminal.
Van Nuys is really a small city on an airport. The $1.2 billion of annual economic activity here fuels 8,700 jobs, 100 businesses and five FBOs.
Skytrails Aviation, which earned high marks in Aviation International News' 2007 FBO survey, offers crew cars, rentals from Midway, Enterprise and Hertz, and a terminal with a conference room, pilots' lounge and Wi-Fi. Maintenance and overnight hangars are not available but catering can be arranged in one hour.
Clay Lacy Aviation, another highly rated FBO, has been a fixture at Van Nuys for more than four decades and the ramp here is always busy. The facility's namesake, a retired airline captain and former air racer, has operated his business on the airport since 1968. It offers full maintenance services and is a large aircraft management and charter provider. Rental cars are available through Midway, and crew cars can be signed out for up to three hours. Catering can be arranged in one hour and the terminal building has the usual conference and pilot rooms with Wi-Fi. As far as I know, this is the only FBO catering to jet aircraft that has its own swimming pool.
Hawker Beechcraft Services' extensive maintenance facility and FBO offers 24/7 line service and two-shift maintenance most of the week. Catering can be ordered typically with one to two hours' notice. Complimentary crew cars and rentals from Midway are available. The terminal features a conference room, training room, pilots' lounge and Wi-Fi.
Maguire Aviation (formerly Petersen) is where the really heavy iron-like Boeing Business Jets-tends to congregate. One day in April, four BBJs were on the Maguire ramp. Catering requires two hours' notice. Crew cars are available as are rentals from Enterprise and Midway. Maguire offers a wide variety of maintenance services. The terminal features a conference room, pilots' lounge, sleep room, showers and Wi-Fi.
Million Air's terminal has a pool table and a business center and some maintenance services are offered, but the facility appears in need of renovation. Rental cars are available from Enterprise or Hertz.
The Bob Hope Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena airport has been in the news for a series of runway overruns involving both commercial and corporate aircraft over the last six years. The latest involved a Gulfstream carrying New York Yankee third-baseman Alex Rodriquez last October. Overall, operations at this airport have been steadily declining as the number of airline flights, mainly by Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines, continues to grow. Burbank was the region's largest commercial airport until LAX surpassed it in the late 1940s. Through the 1970s, Burbank was a thriving general aviation airport, but today it is home to only a few dozen private airplanes, mostly big-iron jets, with an estimated value of $700 million.
Many A-list Hollywood celebrities still use the place because of its proximity to movie and television studios. The airport's namesake, the late comedian Bob Hope, once kept his 1967 Lockheed JetStar 731 here. But those were different times. Today, private aircraft face a cost structure similar to that in place at Miami International and Chicago O'Hare and future airport growth has been repeatedly hamstrung by powerful community opposition groups and an unsympathetic city council. Some minor airport improvements, such as a taxiway turn-out at the end of Runway 8, are scheduled for next year. Two glitzy, full-service FBOs serve the airport.
Mercury Air Center's impressive terminal here houses a conference room, pilots' lounge and kitchen. Maintenance is available on site and crew cars are provided. Same-day notice is requested for catering. You can rent cars here from Enterprise or Hertz.
At Million Air's facility, a giant sculpture protrudes from the center of the lobby and huge windows offer a commanding view of the five-acre ramp, the runway and the mountains beyond. If you must wait, this is a pleasant place to do it. The terminal houses a conference room, pilots' lounge, snooze rooms, showers and a canteen. Two courtesy vehicles are available and cars may be rented on site from Enterprise, Hertz or Midway. On-call maintenance and catering can be arranged. For the latter, six hours' notice is requested.
I like this place because you can eat worms and bugs while watching airplanes land. You read that right: on the south side of the airport, you can order insects (along with regular food) at a swank Pan-Asian restaurant called Typhoon that overlooks the runway. The entomologically inclined can choose from dishes that include chicken-stuffed waterbugs, Singapore-style scorpions on shrimp toast, Taiwanese crickets, Chambi ants and white sea worms. And of course you can wash this down with your favorite proof antiseptic on the outdoor viewing deck and watch the setting sun illuminate the business district's glass towers as airplanes come and go (and student pilots in Cessna 172s occasionally bounce). Typhoon features live jazz on Monday nights and a hearty Sunday brunch and is my favorite place to airplane watch.
Santa Monica has been an airport since 1919 and the original DC-3s were built here. It became a major production facility for Douglas Aircraft Company (which became McDonnell Douglas, which subsequently merged with Boeing) during WWII. But when the city fathers refused to extend the runway in the 1950s, Douglas took its jet programs to Long Beach.
Snubbing Douglas, then the area's largest employer, was just the first clue of things to come. In 1967 homeowners sued over jet noise, so the city imposed an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. departure curfew. A rash of discriminatory ordinances followed, some overturned in Federal court, that banned everything from helicopters and weekend touch-and-gos to all jets. During the 1980s, the city tried to have the airport closed altogether. In a settlement with the federal government, the municipality agreed to keep the airport open until at least 2015, but a 95-decibel noise limit remains in place, assuring that only "quieter" jets have access to the airport.
Supermarine's modern FBO here features the usual amenities, including a conference room, pilots' lounge and Wi-Fi. No maintenance is available but there are crews cars for a $12 fee and cars can be rented from Midway. Supermarine waives its daily $200 ramp fee with a purchase of 200 gallons of jet fuel.
Los Angeles International
Los Angeles International, or LAX, is the fifth busiest airport in the U.S. Its Runway 25 Left/7 Right, one of four runways here, had been closed since last July, but just reopened after a $250 million rebuild and relocation project. A new center taxiway between the parallel runways has also been added as a method of reducing the potential for runway incursions. However, major terminal construction is continuing for the next several years. Ramp fees are very high if you don't buy fuel.
Mercury Air Center's terminal contains a pilots' lounge, conference room and Wi-Fi. Crew cars are available as are rentals from Midway and Hertz. Most catering can be provided on two hours' notice.
Landmark provides the usual amenities, most catering within one hour, crew cars and rentals from Midway. Some maintenance is available.
Located just four miles east of LAX and once the home of Northrop Aviation, Hawthorne has begun rebranding itself as "The New Los Angeles Executive Airport" and seeks to grab corporate business from Long Beach, LAX and Santa Monica. Hawthorne is adjacent to the 105 and 405 expressways; by car, it is only five minutes from LAX and 15 from Long Beach Airport.
Million Air Los Angeles' once-tired general aviation terminal has undergone a $1 million renovation and contains a pilots' lounge, flight-planning room and conference room. Maintenance can be arranged through Security Aviation on the field and most catering requests can be honored with one day's notice. While overnight hangars will not accommodate a Citation, more than 190,000 square feet of new corporate hangar space is being built by a developer with a 50-year ground lease on the nonrunway portions of the airport. Million Air waives its $100 ramp fee for a typical jet with a fuel purchase and the ramp can accommodate aircraft up to the size of a Falcon 900 or Challenger.
During WWII, Douglas cranked out 9,441 military aircraft here. Over the next six decades, the company and its successors produced thousands of the world's most popular passenger jets at Long Beach, including the DC-8, DC-9, MD-80, DC-10 and MD-11. Today, Boeing still builds the giant C-17 military cargo airplane here. But most of Douglas' original 500-acre complex along Lakewood Boulevard has been destroyed and will be redeveloped as a sprawling multi-use and park complex. And once the C-17 production ends next year, Boeing may be gone, too. On Tuesday mornings, a group of Douglas old-timers assemble in the Prop Room restaurant above the passenger terminal and share camaraderie and stories.
The last remnants of the Douglas plant may soon be gone, but the airport is still here and is thriving as a commercial passenger, cargo and general aviation hub. It remains relatively easy to get in and out of and that is its main attraction. There will be some taxiway rehabilitation done over the next year but most of that work is scheduled for the night hours so as not to disrupt operations.
General aviation operations increased by 6 percent at Long Beach between 2005 and 2006 and the trend is continuing and attracting new businesses including, perhaps, the most elaborate airport restaurant ever constructed. Stefano's da Vinci Ristorante is located atop the Rainbow Air FBO and offers a superb view of the airport. The ambiance of this high-end eatery is on par with that at restaurants such as Washington, D.C.'s Sequoia. At da Vinci, you can dine and watch the 65-year-old DC-3 freighters bound for Catalina Island share runways with modern JetBlue Airbuses and tip your glass to Don Douglas one last time.
Air Flite, one of the airport's several ground-support facilities, finished third among all FBOs in North, Central and South America in Aviation International News' 2007 FBO survey. From the physical plant to customer service, everything about this facility is top-notch. The terminal features high glass ceilings, a 600-gallon saltwater fish tank, a pilots' lounge, two conference rooms, a kitchen, shower and Wi-Fi. Catering can be arranged in as little as one hour. Crew cars are available, as are rental cars from Enterprise, Hertz and Select. Hangar space is limited.
Toyota, which owns Air Flite, keeps its U.S. corporate jet fleet here. Air Flite is also the official host FBO for the Long Beach Grand Prix.
Signature Flight Support has limited overnight hangar space and conference rooms must be scheduled in advance. One-day notice for catering orders is preferred. Crew cars are available as are rentals from Hertz.
Mercury Air Center's terminal houses a pilots' lounge, a sleep room, showers and
a conference room. Catering is available on 12 hours' notice. Mercury provides crew cars and can arrange rentals through Enterprise.
Long Beach Air Center continues to evolve. The terminal contains a pilots' lounge, conference room and flight-planning room. Some limited maintenance is available. Catering can be arranged on two hours' notice and you can pick up rental cars on site from Enterprise or Hertz.
Rainbow Air is a flight school/charter operation with self-service fuel.