Palomar airport study sees blue skies ahead; New commuter terminal to expand opportunities

CARLSBAD -- A new study of McClellan-Palomar Airport says the sky may be the limit for future air service, but that has aroused concerns in a community where airplanes are a daily fact of life. The study, called an "air service situation review...


CARLSBAD -- A new study of McClellan-Palomar Airport says the sky may be the limit for future air service, but that has aroused concerns in a community where airplanes are a daily fact of life.

The study, called an "air service situation review" and commissioned by the county Department of Public Works, which operates the airport, updates a 2004 study to factor in new conditions.

Next month, the county will break ground on a $24 million commuter terminal that will include baggage areas, a restaurant and curbside drop-off and pickup -- all firsts for Palomar.

The new terminal also will include a customs inspection area, which could make it more convenient for travelers entering from Mexico.

Private investors also have poured more than $80 million into new hangars and other facilities to serve corporate jets, charters and private aircraft.

SH&E, an international air transportation consulting firm, says it updated the study to evaluate those changes, as well as recent growth in airline-operated turboprop airplanes that may consider Carlsbad as a destination.

Takeoffs and landings are expected to reach 220,000 this year, said county public works spokesman Bill Polick, nearly 10 percent more than last year.

He said airlines and air taxis currently make up 3 percent of airport operations; corporate aircraft, 17 percent; and general aviation, such as private planes and flight schools, 80 percent.

The county's Palomar Airport Advisory Committee will meet to discuss the study tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Carlsbad City Hall, 1200 Carlsbad Village Drive.

Two commuter airlines -- United Express and America West Express -- operate a combined eight daily flights out of Palomar. United operates seven weekday round trips to Los Angeles; America West flies one daily round trip to Phoenix. The aircraft seat from 30 to 37 passengers.

The $25,000 study says the airport serves a North County population of 600,000 -- 20 percent of the county's total. It looked at potential markets within a 750-mile radius, and said Palomar can capture some of the trips flying in and out of San Diego's Lindbergh Field.

"The Bay Area ... is a strong candidate for new service with 70-seat turboprop aircraft," the study says. It found Sacramento also is a contender, and Phoenix may be serviceable with more than the single, daily round trip.

"Las Vegas is also a strong candidate for new service and is within range of the smaller 30-seat turboprop aircraft," the study says.

A regional carrier, Vision Holidays, instituted two weekend round trips between Carlsbad and Las Vegas in June. The study says there may be future demand for as many as four daily round trips.

The study also says northwestern Mexico is a potential market.

Polick said the study isn't a plan but "a wish list."

"Frankly, I've been with (county) airports 11 years now, and the only places they've ever flown is L.A. and Phoenix," Polick said. "This is a market-driven thing."

The study says the 4,900-foot runway could be stretched to accommodate jetliners such as a Boeing 737, but Polick said the county has no plans to do that because the ground under that area is an old landfill.

"In order to take that runway longer, we would have to do a `clean closure' of the landfill, which would essentially mean taking out all that trash that's in there, hauling it away," Polick said. "It would take tens of millions of dollars."

The new terminal, expected to open in October 2008, may be the hook for new air service.

"The (existing) terminal facilities are a very limiting factor," said Mel Holmes, a former commercial jet pilot, who owns and operates Grey Eagle Aviation out of Palomar. "It's got room for only two operators."

He said the new terminal will nearly triple the ramp space, accommodating more passenger flights. "The market possibility, ... at least in the Southwest, is unlimited," Holmes said.

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