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Assemble A Political Team Before You Plan An Airport

A Conversation with Pat Shea

— Pat Shea is a bankruptcy attorney and a one-time candidate for San Diego Mayor. But in 2001 he was president of Brown Field Aviation Partners, an investor group that wanted to turn the airfield near the Mexican border into San Diego’s cargo airport. Political opposition from South-County residents and merchants shot down the proposal, despite Brown Field’s many attributes which include a runway that’s only 1,400 feet shorter than the one at Lindbergh Field.

But now the San Diego airport authority wants to come up with a plan to make better use of the region’s 12 small airports, including Brown Field. Brown Field is one of three airports they’ve said should take more air traffic. Keep in mind, the airport authority doesn’t have the authority to make those kinds of changes. That would be left to the City and County of San Diego, which operate the airports.

Upgrading airports and increasing their flight operations means taking lots of political flak. I asked Pat Shea what that battle is like.


Pat Shea on Airports

What did your involvement with the Brown Field project teach you about airport planning and what it takes to do it in this community?

What I learned about airport planning is that regional airports and specialized airports are the most important pieces of urban infrastructure in America today. They are generators of jobs. They are developers of community plans. They bring industries into places where they cannot go without airports facilities. In terms of the difficulty factor they are tremendously difficult to franchise. When we were doing the Brown Field project I was told by one of our consultants in Washington D.C. that franchising an airport is harder than invading a foreign country.

Well, why is that. Why is it so difficult?

It brings out a lot of stakeholders and a lot of interests in the community who’s general approach – whose default position – is “no.” And there’s a lot of fear about any kind of change. People are wedded to staying where they are rather than taking a chance on a future that’s different and bigger. It’s really about the inherent tension between long-term investment and long-term value in long-term infrastructure versus the political and social influences that are interested in keeping things the way they are or modifying them only slightly.

You know we’re no longer talking about moving out main commercial airport to Miramar Air Station. We’re looking at our smaller airports and asking what they can do to increase air travel capacity. Is that the way to go?

You have to ask, What are your options? If you wanted to do what Denver did, you’d be moving your international airport out into Imperial Valley where you could operate 24-7, 365 days a year. And then you have to put in the infrastructure for getting there and getting back which means you’re probably looking at some advanced electronic trains. And it’s a big, big vision. If you don’t have a big, big vision, then the only thing you can do is use what you’ve got. And what you have are pretty small-time, pretty inefficient, largely-ignored over the years… needs to be repaired and upgraded for any purpose you’re going to bring to it. But you need to look at your options.

What do you see as San Diego greatest needs right now in terms of air travel or in terms of expanding air travel?

I think the biggest issue for San Diego is defining for itself what its expectations are and what its horizons are for air capacity. You know, when you get down to the difficult decisions about, Do we do this project or do we not? What’s it going to bring? Who’s going to provide it? What are the benefits for the community? It was pretty clear (in the case of Brown Field) that a lot of the constituents that you would normally have to have to do any kind of facility enhancements just were not there. They had not, intellectually, stepped up and made a commitment about air capacity in the region with any picture in mind of how it would work.

In 2006, when we voted on moving commercial air travel to Mirimar Air Station, what did you think of that whole exercise?

It was emblematic of the way this community looks at airport planning. We decided that rather than deal with our airport needs, as they stand, we would instead assume, wrongly, that a huge government facility, Miramar Airport, would be abandoned by the Navy and would be given to us for free. That’s really kind of an absurd assumption to base your long-term planning needs upon. It failed on the ballot and it would have failed anyway, because we didn’t own that facility and we weren’t going to own that facility. We’re a lot better off doing the planning with the facilities we have and developing what we have. You need to create the picture of airport capacity in the region and then stick to it. Much better to go down that road than to assume somebody is going to give us a huge airport because we somehow deserve it for not having provided one for ourselves.

Finally, what do you think of this thing at the airport authority, this RASP (Regional Airport Strategic Planning) process. Is this going to go someplace or is this just another study?

That’s a great question because we are long on studies in San Diego. We do them all the time. You know… what is your objective for airport capacity in San Diego. And who is going to stand with you to accomplish those airport objectives. So if you haven’t put together that organization on the front end, if your community and your stakeholders have not agreed to stand and fight to accomplish an airport objective, all the studies in the world are not very helpful. They’re expensive and time consuming but not very helpful. It really comes down to standing and fighting for an idea and a concept that people have already embraced.

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