Stuck on the Waterfront, the Airport's Sky Isn't Falling as Once Feared
• Total take-offs and landings are down, but passengers going through the airport have risen 45 percent from 12.9 million in '95 to nearly 18.76 million last year.
• The airport employs about 360 people today, not including contractors. That’s up from 135 airport employees at the Port in 2001-02.
• The airport’s operating expenses today top $136.8 million, up from $47.3 million.
Nearly 15 years after local politicians carved Lindbergh Field out of the Port of San Diego and created the Airport Authority, take-offs and landings are down almost 22 percent from their peak but the airport’s budget has nearly tripled.
Even with fewer planes coming and going, passengers going through the airport have risen 45 percent from 12.9 million in ’95 to nearly 18.76 million last year, airport data shows.
In short, planes are getting bigger, the airport is getting nicer and critics who panned projections of congestion feel vindicated nine years after voters decisively rejected the Airport Authority’s recommendation that it move the airport to the land occupied now by the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.
Fifteen years ago, officials warned that San Diego International Airport on North Harbor Drive was far too constrained. There’s no way it would handle San Diego’s projected population and travel growth. We needed a new larger location with two 12,000-foot runways. Yes, two!
Then-Mayor Dick Murphy proposed the airport be removed from the Port of San Diego, whose jurisdiction extends only to property near San Diego Bay. Murphy convinced then-state Sen. Steve Peace to co-write legislation in 2001 that would peel the airport away from the Port and create a new agency: the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.
It passed, and a stressful and awkward year of transition followed as assets and employees were divvied up. Peace then wrote another state law in 2002 that required the airport to put an alternate airport site before voters no later than 2006.
Once independent in January 2003, the entire county was the airport’s oyster. That lasted until November 2006, when 62 percent of voters rejected a proposal to move the airport to Miramar.
Despite the concerns of years past, things seem to be running pretty smoothly. The sky isn’t falling, and it’s not too packed either. And that fledgling standalone airport agency has grown into quite a force.
The airport employs about 360 people today, not including contractors. That’s up from 135 airport employees at the Port in 2001-02, budget documents show. Meanwhile, the airport’s operating expenses today top $136.8 million, up from $47.3 million.
Airport CEO Thella Bowens said Port budgets don’t accurately reflect all the airport’s allocated costs and staff support. About 200 Port employees became Airport Authority employees when the split occurred, but the Airport Authority quickly hired another 100 needed positions, she said.
“We didn’t have a facilities maintenance department. We didn’t have a planning department. We didn’t have a finance department. We didn’t have an HR department. We didn’t have IT. We had nothing,” said Bowens, who joined the Port as senior director of the former aviation division in January 1996 and continues to lead the Airport Authority today.
“This is a much larger more complex operation than it was the day we left the Port,” said Bowens. “The legislation required a public vote, which we did, and the public said no. So now our job is really just to focus on how to make this airport work as long as it possibly can.”
With relocation off the table and more passengers on fewer flights, focus has turned to pricey infrastructure projects aimed at making the airport’s existing location at Lindbergh Field more roomy and comfortable for passengers.
Terminal 2 was recently rebuilt with 10 new gates and energy efficiency in mind, becoming the world’s first commercial airport terminal to achieve platinum-level LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. A dual-level roadway was also built, separating drop-offs and pickups, and concession areas were expanded. Those projects cost $1 billion. In January, rental cars will relocate from Harbor Drive to a new $316 million facility on Pacific Highway complete with a shuttle that will take a new $16.3 million airport road, easing traffic on surface streets. A new three-story 3,000-car parking garage is also under construction next to Terminal 2.
Next up is deciding how to rebuild the aging Terminal 1. Board members will be asked to choose between five plans priced between $2.1 billion and $2.6 billion this fall.
Until recently though, attention was focused not on improving Lindbergh – the busiest single-runway commercial airport in the country – but on ditching it and finding a new location where an improved airport with two runways could be built.
“Early on when we did the forecast that drove the site selection that talked about this airport reaching its capacity, the big push at that time in the industry were small regional jets” with 50 to 75 seats, said Bowens. But airlines have turned to larger fleets of Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s instead that can seat 150 or more.
“A lot has happened since that vote. There was a huge recession that no one ever counted on. … What happens to airports during the recession is people don’t fly because that becomes a luxury and not something that’s a necessity,” Bowens said. “Because of the recession and other changes in the industry since 9/11, airlines did shift to larger aircraft.”
That shift was predictable, said UC San Diego economics Professor Richard Carson, long a critic of the airport’s “numbers that were implausibly high for passenger demand.” The airport even hired a consultant to rebut Carson’s arguments in 2006 for $30,000.
“They argued vehemently that all these small commuter planes to LAX were the wave of the future,” and “envisioned a massive increase in international air travel outside North America,” said Carson, who’s done projection work for airlines. “That of course has never materialized. If you look at forecasting and predicting, that should have been obvious.”
“The chance San Diego needed to launch two 747s simultaneously at multiple times of the day, it was an event that just wouldn’t happen,” Carson said. “There was no plausible rationale by any sane person that said they needed two runways.”
Lindbergh Field’s 661-acre waterfront site, he argued, wasn’t given a fair shake.
“In constructing new terminals, it appears they did exactly what they should be doing. They are counting on bigger terminals and bigger planes and are pulling in more lease revenue from shops and food … I think they’ve wised up,” Carson said.
Talking to those responsible for the airport split reveals different motivations and long-term desires. An unlikely backstory also emerges: The airport agency was born out of an effort aimed at consolidating government agencies, not creating new ones.
The San Diego Regional Government Efficiency Commission suggested the airport become an independent agency, and Peace, who co-wrote the state law that created the Airport Authority, had long-term plans to fold the fledgling agency into a massive transit agency that would also include SANDAG, MTS and NCTD.
Peace’s vision never took hold, and he largely blames the pension crisis and Murphy’s untimely resignation.
Peace said his motivation in creating the Airport Authority “came largely out of watching the Port commission and its “horrific results,” including “all these sweetheart deals these Port tenants have.” He also saw a chance to end the relocation debate.
“We were arguing about this nonsense in 1963 and it was an opportunity to end that conversation” Peace said. “I knew Lindbergh would never get the chance to be modernized and dealt with appropriately from a safety perspective, from a growth perspective or anything as long as the specter of moving the airport was there. You had to just kill what I believed to be a delusion that the airport could be moved.”
Despite the staying power of the Airport Authority, “There is zero question that the airport today, despite my criticisms and my frustration and disappointment, operates better than it would have under its prior administration under the port,” Peace said. “They’re making real improvements to the airport.”
Murphy says he wasn’t on board with consolidating all transit agencies in the region, nor was he motivated by dissatisfaction with the Port. For him, giving the airport independence meant relocation flexibility and bringing airport decision-making under one roof.
Airport operations were taken over by the Port when it was created in 1962, but airport planning was left to SANDAG.
“So you had two different government entities, each with some responsibility for the airport, which meant basically nothing ever got done,” Murphy said. “SANDAG would do a study and say, ‘We oughta move the airport to Miramar,’ and then the Port would say, ‘No, we don’t want to.’”
Though the airport didn’t relocate to Murphy’s personal pick, Camp Pendleton, or the airport’s pick, Miramar, “I still consider the creation of the Airport Authority a success,” Murphy said. “Me not being mayor and the pension debacle may have had some negative influence, but I don’t think it was a difference-maker.”
Bowens said current projections show the airport will reach capacity between 2035 and 2040. Of course, changes in the economy, travel trends and technology could change that, like they did in the last decade.
Even at capacity, though, “The skies don’t close because they are congested. They just have delays getting off the airfield, delays getting onto the airfield and so that’s what will happen to San Diego,” Bowens said. Ticket prices could go up, too.
“Building a new airport might sound exciting and sexy and interesting. It would be a great opportunity, but we need to make this work, and if the citizens of San Diego ever decide that they can support a new airport somewhere else, then I’m sure there’s a talent out there to help make that happen.”