A passanger jet flys over head on its way to the Santa Monica Airport. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMO — Why brave what many are predicting to be one of the worst traffic events in recent memory when you can take to the skies?

That’s what a few airlines and charter aviation operators are hoping frustrated commuters decide during the two days Interstate 405 will be closed from Interstate 10 to U.S. Route 101.

One helicopter charter company based at Van Nuys Airport is using what’s been dubbed “Carmageddon” as a novel opportunity to offer $150 flights to Santa Monica Airport and LAX, that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars. Operators say that it turns what could be hours in epic traffic into a jaunt of just minutes.

“I predict traffic is going to be really bad,” said Lance Strumpf, chief pilot of Briles Wing & Helicopter Inc., the company offering the cheap flights. “People are pretty excited to go for a helicopter ride and see the 405 shutdown from the air. I’m telling clients to bring their camera, this is a once in a lifetime kind of thing.”

Ironically, the route to and from Santa Monica Airport to Van Nuys is directly over the portion of the 405 that will be closed from midnight today through 5 a.m. on Monday morning.

Strumpf said that his company has booked roughly 20 flights so far. Adding that passengers have booked flights from both Santa Monica to Van Nuys and vice versa. Some are also requesting flights into LAX.

The only catch of Briles’ deal is that at least four passengers have to be booked on each flight. That means departure times may vary depending on the demand. Strumpf said that most people seem fine with sharing, but admitted that there is a certain clientele that isn’t into sky-pooling.

For them, he offers a special charter for any size party. Thing is, it’s going to cost into the thousands. Most of the people booking charters from Van Nuys to SMO tend to be upper crust.

The idea isn’t new. Strumpf said that operators have tried the Valley to the Westside chopper ferry, but it’s never been a winning idea.

That all may change after this weekend.

“Who knows, maybe we’ll starting making it a regular thing,” he said. “I hope people who [book with us] are happy with the service.”

Any increased traffic at SMO because of the charter flights shouldn’t be a problem, said Airport Director Bob Trimborn.

The airport currently has 300 arrivals and departures on any given day and could easily accommodate double that number.

As for increased demand, Trimborn hasn’t heard from any of the airport’s users about more activity. But, he said that there’s a chance that SMO could be a bit busier than usual given the circumstances.

“It’s difficult to call,” he said about any increase. “No one has said they are brining any extra planes.

“I don’t anticipate a gigantic number, but we could see a bump.”

Aside from increased commuter traffic, Trimborn did say that the airport is gearing up to handle emergency flights.

UCLA’s medical facilities in Westwood are traditionally the destination for Westside trauma patients. With access via streets possibly compromised due to traffic, many of their patients will have to be airlifted in. With just one helicopter pad, some of that may spill over to SMO.

Trimborn and staff have been told that any overflow may be redirected to SMO and then transported over land to Saint John’s Health Center or Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

“If they can’t get the patients [to Westwood], we’re prepared to handle it,” he said.

Personally, Trimborn said that he doesn’t see himself leaving his Thousand Oaks home unless there’s an emergency at SMO. For that, he’ll catch a flight with one of his buddies who fly out of Camarillo Airport.

While Trimborn doesn’t anticipate anything too major at his facility, there’s certainly going to be an up-tick in use at airports this side of the Santa Monica Mountains.

At least two airlines have announced flights from Valley airports to LAX and Long Beach. Southwest is offering flights out of Bob Hope Airport in Burbank to LAX, an unusually short flight that they are saying takes less than a few minutes in the air.

Not to be out done, JetBlue is offering $4 flights from Burbank to Long Beach. The offer was quickly snapped up, selling out in hours. The brain trust at JetBlue called the service a “planepool.”

Despite the doom and gloom many anticipate, Trimborn is taking a slightly different approach to the weekend.

“Who knows, it could be the quietest day in the history of the Westside,” he said. “They said the same thing about the [1984] Olympics and that worked out fine.”


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