San Luis Obispo Airport Has Sky-High Renovation Plans

A larger terminal, longer runway and a parking structure could be a reality at the SLO airport within five years.


Up in the control tower, Joe Morey is still enjoying his year-old radar, which allows him to see -- rather than guess -- the exact location of approaching planes.

The radar at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport has been in place for almost a year, but Morey, an air traffic control specialist, is still jazzed.

"It's like going from being a blind man to someone with 20/20 vision," he enthuses. "It takes out all the guesswork."

He isn't the only one greeting the future with zest. The airport is primed following the terror that consumed many airline passengers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Airport managers gave a glimpse of that future when they submitted their master plan for development to the county Board of Supervisors, which approved it on May 16. It now will be reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The plan will cost about $100 million over the next five years -- $60 million from the FAA and $40 million from airport revenues.

When it is fully implemented, more planes will fly more frequently and give passengers more destinations, which they can reach with fewer transfers.

Some of the key additions either here or on the way:

-- The three-story passenger terminal will nearly double in size, to 66,000 square feet from 35,000. The bottom level will be underground. Construction will begin in 2008 with occupancy by 2010.

-- The new terminal will include a parking structure and adjacent spaces that will double the vehicle capacity to just more than 1,200.

-- The main east-west runway will go to 6,100 feet, an addition of 800 feet, which will allow regional jets to take off fully loaded in hot weather.

-- A $4.7 million hangar with room for 65 additional privately owned small aircraft will be built. There are currently 323 aircraft stored at the airport, airport Manager Klaasje Nairne said -- some in tie-down, others in hangars.

-- A $3.5 million CDF/County Fire station, which opened March 24 and serves the airport and Edna Valley. It has the only aircraft rescue vehicle that CDF/County Fire operates in the county.

-- Additional taxiways.

-- Realignment of Santa Fe Road to accommodate the expanded runway.

Runway extension

For passengers, the single most important part of the expansion is the extended runway, Nairne said.

It will allow the larger so-called regional jets, which carry about 50 people, to get off the ground 90 percent of the time.

Right now, the jets can't get sufficient lift on the shorter runway under certain weather conditions. During one hot week in September 2004, four to 17 passengers were held off planes daily.

The expansion will leave that and other problems in the past. It should, for example, cut down on the 42 percent "leakage" rate -- that is, residents driving to other airports such as Los Angeles, San Jose or Santa Barbara instead of departing from San Luis Obispo.

Some problems have been surmounted. The aftermath of Sept. 11 kept passengers off planes for months, and rising oil prices found their way to tickets.

Passengers have rebounded, though. Passenger totals last year through November reached 328,554, assistant airport manager Martin Pehl said. The total for 2004, at that time the highest ever, was 321,218.

Concerns

The master plan did not gain approval without misgivings. Questions arose in the environmental impact report needed for approval airport expansion. Highway 227 will face traffic delays and the construction will kick up dust and create air pollution.

However, the county approved a so-called statement of overriding circumstances, which says, officially, that the benefits outweigh the inconveniences.

Implementation of the master plan, plus other moves already afoot, should change service for the better for passengers, Nairne hopes.

For example, the airport is trying to expand service to eastern and northwestern locations by luring Delta Air Lines, which flies to Salt Lake City. Twice-a-day flights there would create one-stop flights to dozens of cities.

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