In a belated acknowledgment that San Jose's economy is stuck in coach rather than first class -- maybe for years to come -- city officials are scaling back their once-ambitious expansion plans for San Jose Mineta International Airport.
Instead of continuing to push for a $4.5 billion, double-decker showplace envisioned as recently as eight months ago, city councilmembers this week agreed to have the new aviation director, William Sherry, study a plan for a more-modest, $1.5 billion upgrade to the aging airport. Sherry will report back to the council in November.
"Everybody wants an airport that makes a statement for San Jose, that's very passenger friendly, and has the ability to attract businesses," said Steve Tedesco, chairman of the Airport Commission, a group of seven San Jose citizens who advise airport officials.
But when the former plan called for airlines such as Southwest Airlines to pay as much as $17.50 per departing passenger -- triple their existing costs -- to help underwrite the expansion, "the airlines couldn't swallow that," said Tedesco.
"Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs," said Tedesco.
The new plan being studied, which would cost airlines about $8 or $9 in such fees, scraps some of the more ambitious elements in the former master plan, including a signature "Central Terminal," a double-deck roadway and a gate-to-gate people moving system.
The new plan would also be a big comedown for Mayor Ron Gonzales and other city officials who even this spring were still hoping to build the new Central Terminal, packed with restaurants, concessions and space for all ticketing, baggage check and baggage claims under one airy roof.
Gonzales, a leading fan of the old plan, said he's waiting to hear what airport officials say in mid-November before declaring the former plan dead. If the new plan is "consistent with our vision for the airport, and right for the traveling public and the airlines, at a significantly reduced cost, I'm all for that," said Gonzales. "We'll see if they can do that."
The previous master expansion plan envisioned 17.6 million passengers flying through San Jose annually by 2010, and called for a terminal of 1.1 million square feet. In March, the council OK'd an addition to the expansion plan, an extra 625,000 square feet designated for additional baggage and passenger screening, as well as amenities ranging from meditation rooms to spacious bathrooms.
But the plan started to look increasingly unfeasible as the impact of several events hit the airline and local economy: the drop in travel after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the dot-com bust, multiple airline bankruptcy filings and the surge in airline fuel prices. After peaking at 13 million passengers in 2001, San Jose's annual passenger number dropped to 10.7 million in 2003, and grew only one-half percent last year.
Some travelers who use the airport frequently say they are pleased that they won't face far higher prices as a result of the airlines passing along additional fees, but are concerned about losing the double-deck roadway, which was supposed to ease traffic congestion.
"We would all love to have a beautiful airport, and the ease of getting to the airport is extremely important," said Stephanie Valdez, chairwoman of the Silicon Valley Business Travel Association. But, she added, if keeping passenger costs low "means scaling back on some of those things for the short term, well, we have to do it."
Others hope the city's leadership will fight for something more.
"I am terribly disappointed," said Catherine Tompkison-Graham, a public affairs business owner who sits on the Airport Commission. She said she was chagrined that Sherry implied "we would always be a midsized airport" under the new plan. "What we want for a world-class region like Silicon Valley and the 10th largest city is a world-class airport," she said.
Sherry, San Jose's airport director since May, said his mandate from City Manager Del Borgsdorf was clear: Find a way to give San Jose an airport "with a sense of place," but on a budget the airlines would agree to.
Greg Gillis, property manager for Southwest Airlines, said the new plan does just that. "We're not gutting" the old plan, said Gillis. "We are tying to make the master plan more affordable."
The scaled-down plan being reviewed for the next 45 days is the brainchild of a group of 41 consultants, airline and airport staff, as well as San Jose city legal, planning and other staffers. The group met privately for three days last month to craft a new plan.
With a unanimous consensus rarely seen in San Jose airport politics, the group voted to scrap some of the more ambitious elements in the former master plan.
The former expansion plan depended on issuing bonds that are supported by fees the airport collects from airlines, as well as revenue from parking, concessions and other sources. The new plan will do the same, based on lower assumptions for passenger growth and airline fee contributions. Sherry said he also hopes to procure federal grants.
The group suggested the city forge ahead with a $355 million plan to build the showcase-like, two-story North Concourse, complete with its fancy sail-shaped exterior. That concourse, which could be complete by mid-2008, Sherry said, would contain up to 11 airline gates. That would help pave the way for the city to shut the current 14-gate Terminal C, something the panel suggested be done "the sooner the better" because of its operating and maintenance costs, he said.
The panel also recommended expanding the ticketing and security screening area of the 15-gate Terminal A, the current home of Southwest and American Airlines, to ease current passenger crowding and delays in the 10-year-old terminal.
So far, the city has spent more than $150 million on projects in the original master plan, including some plane runway and taxiway improvements and laying the foundation for the North Concourse.
"It's our belief that none of the construction money that's been expended has been wasted," said Sherry.
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