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Little Airports Will Carry A Bigger Weight

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Aired 12/1/10

It's been four years since San Diegans defeated Proposition A and said "no" to moving their commercial airport from Lindbergh Field to Miramar Air Station. But talk of expanding airport capacity hasn't died out.

— Peter Drinkwater spoke to me in a steady stream of random thoughts as he taxied his two-man prop plane after landing at McClellan-Palomar airport in Carlsbad. Drinkwater is Director of San Diego County Airports. I flew with him from Gillespie Field in El Cajon to Carlsbad so he can show me what's on the runway and what's in the hangers.

San Diego County Airports Director Peter Drinkwater flies his small prop plane toward a landing at McClellan-Palomar Airport.
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Above: San Diego County Airports Director Peter Drinkwater flies his small prop plane toward a landing at McClellan-Palomar Airport.

"And you will notice all of these different types of aircraft,” he said, “from the largest gulfstream jets and the longest-range aircrafts, that can go from China to the U.S. direct, to smaller jets and turbo-props."

It's been four years since San Diegans defeated Proposition A and said "no" to moving their commercial airport from Lindbergh Field to Miramar Air Station. But talk of expanding airport capacity hasn't died out. And now the discussion is not about building new airports with dual, 12,000-foot runways. It’s focused on little airports like McClellan-Palomar with single runways of 5,000 feet.

The landing strip at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, CA. The runway expansion would be built on the eastern end, which is covered in green grass in this photo.
Enlarge this image

Above: The landing strip at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, CA. The runway expansion would be built on the eastern end, which is covered in green grass in this photo.

The Carlsbad airport is home to about 150,000 flights a year and it is San Diego's other commercial airport. Still, 95 percent of the use of this airport is by private planes. And as we visit the airport's terminal, now used only by United Express, I’m struck by the shortage of customers.

"It's kind of funny to see this terrific little terminal building, and there are no people here,” I said to Drinkwater.

“It's like having a party and the guests forgot to show up!" he responded.

But Drinkwater said expansion of commercial air travel at the Carlsbad airport is in the works. In fact, McClellan-Palomar is one of three small airports, in San Diego County, that the San Diego Regional Airport Authority says are underutilized.

San Diego has a dozen small airports operating under various jurisdictions that could pick up more air traffic. Ted Anasis, manager of planning for the airport authority, said eventually they will have to. He says projections show the capacity of Lindbergh Field will be tapped out within 20 years.

"We have to look outside of the box to think about how we might utilize all the public- use airports as a system of airports,” he said, “and be able to meet some of the suppressed demand that we anticipate beyond 2030."

Some people do use the Carlsbad airport instead of flying out of Lindbergh. I spied about 40 of them, on a recent Tuesday morning, as they waited in McClellan-Palomar’s shiny new terminal to catch a United Express flight to LA. When I asked them why they chose this airport instead of Lindbergh, the response I heard again and again was “convenience.”

North County resident Carl Simonsen lives a five-minute drive from the Carlsbad airport. He says traffic, parking and cost all argue in favor of flying out of McClellan-Palomar. Of course, there are some drawbacks.

"The flights only go to Los Angeles and I have to change. I'm only going to San Francisco. I do it about twice a month," said Simonsen.

But things will change if California Pacific Airlines makes its planned lift-off. The start-up company, based in San Diego, expects to operate direct flights from Carlsbad to Oakland, San Jose, Las Vegas and Phoenix, beginning next March. CEO Ted Vallas says his company has budgeted two million dollars to market their service.

Small airports like McClellan-Palomar, Gillespie Field in El Cajon and Brown Field in Otay Mesa are limited by their geography and the length of their runways. Runway length is crucial to determining how many passengers and how much fuel a plane can carry, as well as how far it can fly.

The Carlsbad airport’s master plan calls for a thousand-foot extension of its runway, though San Diego County has yet to figure out the cost of it in dollars and political flak. Today, the airport’s runway is only 4,900 feet long.

But Peter Drinkwater says new airplane technologies are making small airports – including San Diego’s undersized primary commercial airport – more flexible and more valuable.

"Commercial aircraft like the Boeing 787 are built with composite materials and better engines and they produce longer ranges,” he said. “So, when that airplane is introduced in about a year or so, there will the capability of flying from Lindbergh to far destinations overseas that are now not possible off of that existing runway."

Drinkwater said the same will apply to smaller airports like McClellan-Palomar as the new generation of regional jets become lighter, quieter and more powerful.

So far, San Diego has been reluctant to upgrade their air travel infrastructure. Voters rejected the proposed move from Lindbergh to Miramar Air Station. An effort to turn Brown Field into a busy cargo airport failed when it ran into a political buzz saw. But if Drinkwater is right about the new generation of jets, the future may be found at the Carlsbad airport.

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