Board Member Not Giving Up on North County Airport

Feb. 16--SAN MARCOS -- The idea of operating twin international airports in San Diego County, including one in North County, may be nearly dead. But Bob Maxwell of Oceanside, who serves on a regional board that is studying airport options, vowed in a forum Wednesday to do everything in his power to keep the idea alive.

"I haven't given up," Maxwell said.

Maxwell made the comment during a question-and-answer period in a two-hour forum that more than 100 business leaders attended at the Lake San Marcos Resort and Country Club. The event was sponsored by the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and several North County chambers of commerce. The forum was titled, "What a Future Air Transportation Solution Means to North San Diego County."

The authority is studying whether to expand Lindbergh Field, the nation's busiest single-runway commercial airport, or build a new airport to replace Lindbergh. The authority is hoping to deliver an airport with a pair of parallel, 12,000-foot-long runways.

The agency has also been considering North County as a location for a single-runway satellite airport that would supplement Lindbergh. Two 1,600-acre sites have been identified: One on the eastern edge of the 23,000-acre Rancho Guejito property east of Escondido, and a second three miles east of Interstate 15 on a plateau near the Lawrence Welk Resort.

Aviation consultant Bob Hazel, one of two program speakers, said that, in his opinion, accommodating the San Diego region's long-term air travel needs does not mean building a second airport in North County while continuing to fly out of Lindbergh Field.

Hazel said history has shown that only metropolitan areas with huge population bases -- much larger than metro San Diego's -- can support two airports. And even then, he said, it takes decades to develop a successful second airport. He said St. Louis and Phoenix are examples of cities with second airports that have yet to get off the ground.

An example of one that has is Washington's Dulles International Airport, which was built in Dulles, Va., 26 miles from downtown Washington, D.C., Hazel said. He said that was after it struggled for years as airlines and passengers continued to flock to the closer-in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

"Dulles did eventually take off in the 1980s, but it took a lot of effort and a lot of time to develop it," Hazel said, noting that it also serves Baltimore.

But Maxwell maintained that time is something San Diego County has plenty of.

Maxwell noted that the point of the ongoing search for alternative sites is that Lindbergh, which handled 17.4 million passengers in 2005, is expected to run out of room to handle San Diego County's forecast passenger and cargo growth in about 15 years. He said it probably would take that long, anyway, to build a North County airport which could meet the extra demand beyond that point.

A North County airport could operate with a much longer runway than does Lindbergh, Maxwell said, and open the door to the long-distance international market that up to this point has been dominated by Los Angeles International Airport and has escaped San Diego. Most large planes used for international flights are restricted from landing at Lindbergh.

When it comes to potential new airport sites, the agency is studying one in Imperial County and another at Campo in southeastern San Diego County. It also is examining three area military bases: Camp Pendleton, North Island Naval Air Station and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. The authority is checking to see whether it would be practical to build a new airport on any of those bases, or share an existing runway with the military.

As for a second airport in North County, the authority's four-member strategic planning committee voted 4-0 on Monday to recommend scratching the notion of North County satellite airport from further consideration precisely because of concerns Hazel raised earlier. Besides the difficulty of creating a financially successful second airport, it could cost $4 billion to $6 billion to build one.

Maxwell said he believes such an airport could be built for less, although he did not suggest what might be a more realistic price.

Perhaps most important, said Angela Shafer-Payne, authority vice president of strategic planning and the other program speaker, airlines likely would be reluctant to move to a second airport if Lindbergh stayed open because their costs would be greater at the new airport. She noted that in Denver, the most recent major city to build an airport, officials gave airlines no choice but to move to Denver International Airport when they closed Stapleton International Airport.

The airport authority also received feedback from the audience about its distant candidate sites to the east. Patrick Ryan of Oceanside suggested it was unrealistic to expect a North County resident to travel that far to hop on a plane.

"You'd have to leave at 2 o'clock in the morning just to catch a 6:30 flight," Ryan said.

Shafer-Payne said about one in 10 North County residents already flies out of airports to the north, such as Los Angeles, John Wayne (Orange County) and Ontario, rather than use Lindbergh. She said the agency is studying how many more would opt for other airports if they had to travel to Campo or Imperial County.

The authority is bound by state law to come up with a plan for handling San Diego County's air travel needs long into the future, and place it on the county ballot in November for an advisory vote.