San Bernardino airport may see flights next year; The facility at the former Norton Air Force Base is being upgraded, and the city says service is coming.

For years, San Bernardino International Airport has seemed more fiction than fact, a vast sheet of concrete with a grand title where the chirp of crickets is often louder than the roar of jet engines.

The very things that make an airport an airport -- passengers, terminals, scheduled flights -- are missing here. The control tower is impressive but empty.

But years of quiet building, ambitious starts and frequent failures might finally be paying off.

Officials at the airport, the former Norton Air Force Base, now say they are negotiating with four airlines for regular passenger service to begin next year.

They won't reveal the firms they are talking with, but so far they have spent $34 million to refurbish the runway, $38 million for a new passenger terminal and $8 million to widen roads leading to the airport in eastern San Bernardino.

It's a big gamble. Experts say airlines may be reluctant to begin service to a place with an unproven track record and little name recognition.

But Scot Spencer, manager of SBD Aircraft Services, believes the economics of flying into San Bernardino will prove irresistible to cash-strapped carriers.

"For scheduled airlines, this is the low-cost facility close to the fastest-growing part of the state," Spencer said. "If you were an airline operating six flights a day into San Bernardino and compared fees to other California airports, you would save an average $3 million a year to operate here. You would save on every fee."

For passengers, the airport hopes to offer cheap flights, less congestion and international destinations. They want to tap the vast base of Inland Empire customers, many of whom drive through San Bernardino on their way to LA/Ontario International Airport. They also believe people will drive even farther for low fares and less hassle.

"I have seen the data on how far people will travel for a cheap airfare," Spencer said. "People drive from Fresno to Long Beach for a $99 fare to Florida."

Spencer's company leases the airport's main aircraft hangar, which it sublets to other businesses. He is also leasing the passenger terminal now under construction.

But his role in the creation of the airport raises questions. Spencer spent 51 months in prison for bankruptcy fraud and conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud in connection with his presidency of the failed Braniff III airline. He was released in 2001.

He has been involved in other controversial aviation deals leaving behind lawsuits and angry investors. The U.S. Department of Transportation banned him from the aviation business, an order he is appealing.

"We are in the real estate business, not the aviation business," said Spencer, 42. "The incident with Braniff was 16 years ago. We have proven ourselves here. We make our lease payments, we have brought in tenants and we have created over 600 jobs."

Donald Rogers, interim director of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, said Spencer had "paid his debt to society." He said the aviation ban applied only to scheduled airline service, not other businesses.

There are other issues facing San Bernardino too, such as the busy airport in nearby Ontario.

"Why would anyone come to San Bernardino when 20 miles away there is a world-class airport?" asked Rogers, an accountant. "We think it is economics. We think that economics will drive them here. Airlines are already operating on a very slim profit margin."

He also noted that San Bernardino's improved runways can handle jumbo jets like the Boeing 747.

Harold Johnson, spokesman for LA/Ontario International Airport, seemed untroubled by a potential rival.

"We fully support the regionalization of air service," he said. "There is enough room to grow for everyone."

In the last few months, the San Bernardino airport has dramatically increased operations. It bought a Million Air franchise, an upscale aviation service, to ferry executives from Southern California around the world. The planes and flight crews will be based at the airport.

It also plans to expand into the international charter business and is building a customs and immigration center. Airport officials recently returned from Hong Kong, where they marketed the facility to potential East Asian clients.

The airport has attracted tenants like So Cal Precision Aircraft, which moved its heavy aircraft maintenance operations from Mojave more than a year ago.

"We looked at moving to LAX, but we save $50,000 to $60,000 a month in lease payments here," said company owner Greg Albert.

Local leaders see a busy commercial airport as a potential boon to the economy. They hope highly skilled, well-paid aviation workers will move into depressed San Bernardino and improve the quality of life.

"An airport would be a magnificent addition to our city, and we are on the fast track," said San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris. "I fully expect to have scheduled flights here by next summer."

The former Norton Air Force Base was built during World War II as a supply and transit point for troops heading for the Pacific.

It closed in 1994. More than 10,000 jobs were lost. People left town, and the city fell on hard times from which it has never recovered.

Rather than try to sell the worn-out base, the military handed it over to the Inland Valley Development Agency virtually free of charge. "We inherited a World War II facility with all the problems of aging infrastructure and a compromised environmental situation," Morris said. "We have had to mitigate those issues step by step. We are in the last phase of that."

Rogers, the airport director, estimates that $700 million has been spent so far, most of it from state and federal grants.

A number of businesses have relocated to the base. Stater Bros. markets moved its corporate headquarters there from Colton this month. Next year it will open a 2.1-million-square-foot distribution center, the largest in the country, creating 2,100 jobs. Kohl's, Mattel and Pep Boys also have distribution centers on the property. The base is now self-sufficient, even profitable.

Still, giant warehouses can't match the cachet of a bustling airport, and that remains, for many, the ultimate goal.

Yet history doesn't offer much in the way of optimism.

An earlier attempt to turn the airport into a cargo hub failed when DHL, the client targeted, opted to fly out of March Air Reserve Base near Riverside instead.

In the late 1990s, Santa Barbara Aerospace and American Air Carriers Support tried to operate out of the airport, and both went bankrupt.

Aviation analysts question whether there is enough demand for more commercial flights to make the airport viable.

"Passengers don't need to go far to find what they want," said Bob Mann, an airline analyst. "Trying to subdivide that market and create a new one is very tough."

Mann said that to succeed, San Bernardino would need to offer rock-bottom prices to a new airline not serving the market today.

"Established airlines would not be willing to take a risk on an unproven market," he said.

But another expert said the facility could fit into the trend of smaller feeder airports outside major metropolitan areas.

"One can look around the country and find a list of underused airports that have gained momentum as commercial airports," said Alan Bender, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "These airports are very hungry and offer fantastic deals to airlines."

Bender said the Manchester, N.H., airport attracts many Boston flights, while the Bellingham, Wash., airport gets Seattle-bound passengers. Ryanair, the largest low-fare operator in Europe, almost always lands at remote airports to cut costs.

"They find airports that will charge them basically nothing, and some even give them revenue guarantees," Bender said. "In the airline business, any way you can chop a few pennies off your costs counts."

At the San Bernardino airport today, the new four-gate passenger terminal is taking shape, and a few jumbo jets are being repaired in the hangar. It's still too quiet for an airport, despite the occasional prop plane slipping into the air toward the San Bernardino Mountains.

Rogers doesn't expect the calm to last much longer. He knows the task ahead is huge and the stakes are high.

"Our chief hurdle is getting all this done in time," he said. "This airport will be the crown jewel of the base."

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david.kelly@latimes.com


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