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Dreamliner’ Helps Make San Diego Airport’s Dreams Come True

By the end of this year, San Diego's Lindbergh Field will offer its first direct, non-stop flight to Tokyo, courtesy of Japan Airlines. The service is now possible because a new airplane called the Boeing 787 has the range to make it across the Pacific. KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge has more on how new technology, fuel costs and the economy are affecting the viability of San Diego's airport.

Boeing calls the 787 the Dreamliner, and the company’s innovative new passenger jet paid a visit to Lindbergh Field on a promotional trip last week. By the end of this year, it will provide San Diego with its first-ever, non-stop flight to Japan, thanks to the plane’s ability to go a long way on a tank of fuel.

Boeing's 787 is launching a new era of international travel at San Diego's Lindbergh Field. But the economy and the cost of fuel will also determine how long the city can rely on its hemmed-in airport.

Boeing spokesman Larry Seto said the 787 uses 20 percent less fuel than other planes of equal size, due to a bonding technology that doesn’t require rivets through the skin of fuselage.

“So what that does is it saves you in weight,” he said, “and it saves you in aerodynamic efficiency because those rivets would protrude out of the outer skin of the airplane.”

The Dreamliner is the latest example of how technology, along with fuel costs and the economy, are affecting and in some ways improving the ability of San Diego’s geographically constrained airport to serve its region.

The 787 means San Diegans will soon be able to fly to Asia either non-stop, or with only one connection instead of two. That’s great. But it also draws attention to the limitations of Lindbergh Field, and it’s short, less-than-9,000-foot runway. Thella Bowens, president of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, said Lindbergh’s challenges go beyond the length of the runway.

“The problem with Lindbergh Field is that it sits on the bottom of a bowl,” she said, “and no matter if you’re taking off to the east or west, you have terrain that begins to rise.”

Clearing that terrain – AKA Point Loma or Banker’s Hill – off a short runway, means you can’t carry much fuel because that weighs down the plane. And if you can’t carry much fuel there’s a limit to how far you can fly.

The other well-known problem with Lindbergh Field is it has only one runway, severely limiting the number of flights that can take off and land. Joe Craver was Chair of the San Diego airport authority when it asked voters in 2006 if it should seek to move San Diego’s airport to Miramar Air Station, in cooperation with the Marines. Voters rejected the initiative.

Craver said Miramar, now a Marine Corps air station, would have been a much more desirable airport.

“If the military had given up Miramar, it would have allowed an expansion of Miramar to create four runways, more than 10,000 feet long,” said Craver. “That would have taken San Diego into the next century. So that would be an ideal spot.”

But what would San Diego actually do with four runways? Some of the assumptions about the growth of air travel we made six years ago have changed.

Not long ago it seemed like air travel was becoming just another middle-class entitlement. Everybody flew. If you had a week off you might was well go visit your brother Bob in Ft. Lauderdale. But about four years ago, something happened: A recession.

Since 2008, the passenger count at Lindbergh Field has dropped by well over a million people. In 2008, 18,125,663 passengers flew in or out of San Diego’s airport. Last year, the number was only 16,890,772.

It seems like a strong contradiction to the claims, made in ’06, that Lindbergh would “max out” in 20 years.

A little more recently something else happened that you’ve probably noticed at the gas pump. Fuel prices went up dramatically.

Steve Van Beek is an airport consultant based in Washington D.C. He said fuel is an airline’s greatest expense. He added that while high fuel prices, combined with a slow economy, may be bad news for airlines, in a way it’s good news for Lindbergh Field.

“A lot of carriers have lost money,” he said. “So planes are fuller and not as many planes are flying, which actually extends the life of an airport like Lindbergh maybe 10, 15; maybe even more years than that.”

I spoke with a number of passengers during a recent visit to Lindbergh Field. Views about the airport were mixed, but most people seemed to really like it. One of them was Kevin Johnson, a salesman from Wichita.

“I fly to hundreds of airports in the country and Lindbergh is one of my favorites. It’s close to the city. Small airport. In and out easy… Yeah, it’s one of the best,” he said.

But visit Lindbergh’s commuter terminal, and you’ll hear passengers who are frustrated with the lack of direct flights. Karsten Schmidt was ready to jump on a small plane to L.A., because there are no direct flights to Frankfurt, Germany.

“For me it is important to get to Germany. And connections from Los Angeles and San Francisco do exist, but not from San Diego,” he said.

Schmidt works in San Diego’s biotech industry. He said he would be very pleased if he didn’t have to take a “puddle jumper” to L.A. just to get to major destination like Frankfurt.

“So it would be great if we had the ability to promote this a little bit. And I know a lot of my colleagues that have business connections in Germany and Europe would agree with that,” said Schmidt.

In fact, San Diegans can already fly direct to London aboard a 777. And the ability of people to fly direct to Frankfurt or Paris isn’t a matter of improving airport infrastructure or airplane technology. Van Beek said it depends on having enough business to support the flights. He referred back to the coming flights to Tokyo.

“It’s a bit of a pilot test for whether this will be a successful market,” he said. “So business travelers need to fly non-stop. They need to buy into business and premium sections of the cabin, and they need to make it a profitable flight.”

Today, planes like the Dreamliner are putting Lindbergh in a position to improve its international service. As for the limitations of the single runway, for now we’re stuck with it.

Even if the Marines left Miramar Air Station next week, there’s no telling San Diegans actually want that to become home to a four-runway airport. They have, after all, rejected the idea once before.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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