California's Big-City Airports Near Limit

California sorely neglected infrastructure investment decade after decade -- with congested highways, deteriorating and overcrowded schools, and overused parks among the consequences -- but the state's locally operated airports were a shining exception.

With revenues generated from ever-increasing airline flights, local airport authorities busily added runways and terminals during the 1980s and 1990s. Traffic soared past 150 million passengers a year in the early 1990s and was nearing 180 million when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks put a damper on Americans' willingness to fly.

The dot-com meltdown contributed to the decline. Between 2001 and 2003, California air travel plummeted by nearly 20 million passengers a year. But as the economy recovered and travelers' fears lessened, it revived and by 2005 had rebounded to pre-2001 levels. Moreover, as the state's population and economy continue to grow, and as its position as the gateway to the Pacific Rim expands, every transportation planning agency expects that demand for air service also will expand.

However, even as the state finally begins making multibillion-dollar investments in new highways and other critical infrastructure, its big-city airports face a looming crisis of capacity. Airport expansion plans have fallen by the wayside in San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and San Francisco, felled by local opposition, environmental restrictions and other factors.

San Diego's dilemma typifies the situation. While its waterfront airport, Lindbergh Field, is convenient for travelers, a single runway and noise restrictions mean that Lindbergh is rapidly reaching the saturation point. The city has been seeking an alternative for at least 60 years and created a powerful government entity to resolve the dilemma. But when a new airport commission proposed an airport on Miramar Mesa, the site of a Marine Corps air base, it was rejected by the military and two-thirds of voters. That leaves San Diego where it has been for decades, with an airport that will soon reach its absolute capacity.

Once-ambitious plans for expanding Los Angeles International have been scaled back to near-zero, due to local opposition, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to concentrate international flights at LAX and depend on satellites, particularly Ontario International and an underused airport at Palmdale, to shoulder the domestic load.

Ontario has added two new terminals in recent years, with plans for at least two more, and has become a major freight hub, while the city is trying to jump-start Palmdale by heavily subsidizing flights to and from San Francisco. Millions of local and federal funds have been pumped into the former Norton AFB near San Bernardino to convert it into a full-service airport, but its proximity to Ontario make its future iffy.

Los Angeles' emphasis on Ontario and Palmdale indicate the direction that air travel is taking -- inland. With coastal airports already congested and unable to expand, inland facilities will handle an ever-greater share of the traffic. While LAX is still well shy of its pre-2001 passenger load, for instance, Ontario is handling a half-million more passengers annually than it was in 2000. And while San Francisco International is 20 percent off its pre-2001 high and San Jose International is down 17 percent, Sacramento International is 25 percent higher and planning for much more.

This diffusion of air travel, which mirrors trends in employment and population, has an interconnectivity problem, however. If, for instance, LAX concentrates on international service, how do international travelers, both incoming and outgoing, connect with domestic flights at Ontario or Palmdale?

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