San Bernardino Int'l Airport Landing Path for Economic Hopes

Nov. 5--The San Bernardino International Airport has a refurbished runway, but will the air traffic come?

After two years and $34 million, the airport put the finishing touches on the 10,000-foot runway last week, and plans a formal ceremony in December.

The runway is part of the former Air Force base's plans to redevelop itself as an economic engine for the area. To encourage the redevelopment, federal and state governments paid for $33.4 million of the runway work.

With the refurbished runway completed, air cargo and passenger operations that have avoided the airport might give it a second look, said airport operations officer Mark Gibbs.

No scheduled passenger or cargo flights currently use the airport. An air charter service, aerial firefighters and several small private users now make up the bulk of the airport's traffic -- about 60,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

But the draft of a report prepared by HNTB Corp., a national consulting firm for airports, bridges and highways, predicts that by 2008, 396,000 passengers -- about three 737s taking off and three landing every day -- and 410,000 tons of cargo will use the airport every year.

By 2013, the report predicts 920,000 passengers and 525,000 tons of cargo.

By comparison, Ontario International Airport had 605,000 tons of cargo and about 7 million passengers in 2004.

"Realistically, we don't think 2008 (projections) will happen until 2013," said Penny Chua, San Bernardino airport's marketing director. "But we're in discussions with several carriers now, so we're optimistic."

The airport has wooed regional passenger carriers for years, but its only regularly scheduled passenger service was Casino Express airlines' twice-weekly flights to Elko, Nev., in 1998 and 1999.

Chua said user interest will grow once the airport completes its next improvement project, the opening of its control tower. That is expected in mid-summer.

San Bernardino's new runway is shorter than Los Angeles International Airport's at 12,000 feet, and about the same length as Ontario's runway.

But San Bernardino airport officials point out that their new runway has the advantage of being a Grade 6 runway. That means it is wide enough, thick enough and strong enough to accommodate the largest airplane in the world: the 550-seat, double-decker Airbus A380, which is scheduled to begin operations next year.

But before airport officials start thinking about landing the world's premier planes, they have to start with something less ambitious, said Ned Laird, managing director of Air Cargo Managing Group Consulting Services in Seattle.

"The A380 will probably never operate anywhere other than the principal airport at the city," in this case, Los Angeles International Airport, he said. "It sounds like these guys are being overly ambitious."

Laird said a military airport that is seeking to transition to civilian uses, as the San Bernardino airport is, should focus first on cargo charters -- cargo carriers that don't make deliveries on a regular schedule.

Air cargo consultant Michael Webber, owner of Webber Air Cargo in Kansas City, Mo., agreed.

"It's a big challenge for carriers to move from LAX," he said. "And when they do, they're going to go to Ontario, not San Bernardino."

But for airport users, having a new runway will mean a significant improvement in their ability to do business, said Don Blue, owner of Blue's Aviation, the airport's only fuel provider.

A runway that has fallen into disrepair, as San Bernardino's had, increases the likelihood of "foreign object damage," when pieces of grit get sucked into engines, fouling them up.

"My customers are really going to appreciate" the new runway, Blue said. "This is something that should have been done 10 years ago."