At Burbank, the issue is local control — making it national
By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director
The original United Airport at Burbank and terminal were constructed in 1930
BURBANK, CA — There is a bigger picture here. It’s lost, it seems, in a sea of special interests with politics for oxygen. The process issuffocating. Yet, the FAA and airport authority keep on with the target of making the Burbank Airport safe. A 25-year process has only brought steps aside or backward, and a tired terminal still stands too near airside activities. The entire community now has a say in how it will be replaced, and is holding it hostage for a curfew. That’s led to a Part 161 study and a heightened concern from industry groups.
Acting executive director Dios Marrero,
who remains hopeful despite the history of setbacks, says the Burbank
Airport impasse is reflective of U.S. politics in general. "Political
leaders are creating jobs, they’re bringing in industry, they’re
implementing economic development strategies, and then they’re shocked
when that creates aviation demand.
"We’re really just a microcosm of a dynamic that’s occurring statewide and that occurs in communities around the country. Not all communities; there are some that are able to recognize the need for transportation facilities."
[It should be noted, Marrero in February announcred he will step down from his post once a successor is found, and resume his previous position as director of finance and administration.]
Comments Victor Gill, 53, who has been with the authority since 1984 and who serves as director of public affairs and communications, "This is the downside of a political body having a pivotal role in airport proprietorship."
A 1930s DESIGN
When built, it was an airport touted for its proximity away from urban areas and design of facilities clear of airside activities. That was before the jet age and post-war California.
A year ago, the Burbank Airport drew national attention when a Southwest Airlines aircraft slid off the end of the runway, stopping short of a gas station. Today, the gas station is gone and other runway safety initiatives have been implemented, including plans for arresting pavement that could have stopped the aircraft. But it does not address the fundamental problem of a terminal facility lying too close to the runway.
Explains Gill, "The airport has this fundamental layout problem. Having been built in 1930, it has a terminal building hundreds of feet closer than the 750-foot building restriction line."
In its day, it was the first million dollar U.S. airport, offering first-rate facilities and aviation tenants such as Northrup and Hamilton Standard. It was constructed by United Airports Company of California, a predecessor of United Airlines, and was known as the United Airport at Burbank.
In 1940, Lockheed purchased the airport. (Today, the contract management firm, TBI, is a derivative of that firm, having purchased Airport Group International, the former Lockheed Air Terminal.) It is here that Lockheed built the top secret Stealth Fighter, on property that has become central to the terminal debate.
In the 1970s, Lockheed announ-ced its intention to sell the airport, leading to the formation in 1978 of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority which today owns and operates it. Each of the three cities names three members to the nine-member authority, but the airport lies within Burbank’s city limits, also central to the terminal discussion.
Burbank Airport currently serves some five million passengers annually, with some 90 commercial flights and 190,000 operations. The generally agreed upon new terminal would be 250,000 square feet with 14 gates — the current amount — with no plans for significant expansion.
Mired in Politics
The airfield constraints here have been on the radar scope of the Federal Aviation Administration for years. The local issue is becoming increasingly national following the Southwest incident and with the initiation of the FAR Part 161 study, which is being used here as an instrument to attempt to implement a curfew. Nationally, industry is watching FAA’s handling of this Part 161 and one being conducted at Naples, FL, as communities look to see what the agency will allow. [In essence, Part 161 is intended to allow consideration of more local say in airport matters; however, its counterbalance is forcing a community to study in-depth its reasons for action. What will be permitted and how much study is enough are among the questions still to be answered by FAA.]
"The 161 is really geared toward trying to implement an enforceable, mandatory full nighttime curfew," explains Marrero, "and if we’re successful in doing so, it would be the first such restriction approved by the FAA and implemented by a local airport. The 161 is symptomatic of a trend that has existed here to be the most innovative and aggressive in trying to address urban noise impact. We are surrounded by an urban area and we are respectful of that. You have to face the reality that people in urban areas have expectations and a certain amount of consideration from their governmental authorities and react accordingly."
Meanwhile, trade groups such as the National Business Aviation Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association are expressing opposition to the curfew.
Property and Size
At Burbank Airport, plans have come and gone, only to be replaced by new plans. "There was an attempt that moved fairly quickly in the early ’80s," recalls Gill. "It cleared all of the environmental hurdles, even got to conceptual design, for a building on a portion of the Lockheed property where the skunkworks facilities, the so-called Plant B-6 property, is located. By 1985, Lockheed withdrew its willingness to sell a portion of the property for the terminal. At the time, they were unwilling to state any particular reason." It later was revealed that Lockheed was building the components of the F-117A Stealth Fighter there. The airport sought a new property solution.
By the ’90s, however, Lockheed was again willing to sell the property, beginning a new debate. In fact, the new parcel was larger.
Explains Gill, "The interesting part of the first half of the 1990s was that there was real consensus at the political level, both on the airport commission and the three constituent cities. Notably, Burbank’s priority at the time was to recover from the prospective loss of Lockheed as a corporate member of the community, and the freeing up of over 300 acres of prime real estate, never mind the thousands of jobs that went with it."
In 1995, says Gill, consensus stopped with the election in Burbank of a restrict-the-airport plank. "It flipped 180 degrees," he says.
All that, says Gill, "ultimately led to what I’ll call the current generation of terminal discussion."
Because its size is an inherent restriction, any property the Burbank Airport would acquire would be city property. Burbank, by court decree, has the right to exercise approval of the purchase of land. That, according to Gill, means the airport could pay Lockheed $86 million on which it does not have legal authority to build a terminal. Burbank subsequently put a deadline for getting an agreement, one that’s quickly approaching.
Says Gill, "The window of opportunity on which everybody across the board says is the best piece of property is about to disappear." The city of Burbank is also in agreement, says Gill, but it wants to control terminal size and get a curfew implemented.
Burbank has successfully engineered consensus on the size of the facility. In effect, it’s a modern version of what exists, except it’s safely away from airfield operations. The curfew to limit noise is in line with Burbank’s history as a leader, says Marrero.
The frustration over the purchase of the Lockheed property — part of which was purchased for airfield safety — has led the authority to announce an alternative site on property it already owns, taking Burbank out of the purchase loop. It still, however, has authority over zoning.
Meanwhile, almost as an aside, a citizens group has capitalized on the debate and through an initiative and referendum process gotten the citizenry directly involved in the terminal decision. "No matter what we and the city council do, it still has to go out to a vote of the voters," explains Gill. "That referendum passed very easily last November."
The organizers, however, are not satisfied and have qualified for a special election October 9th calling for even more restrictions. Unique for this election is that it will be done via the U.S. mail, offering voters ease in casting their ballots.