Palomar Airport Master Plan Gets Mixed Reactions In North County
The McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad is supposedly San Diego County’s second commercial airport.
But, while increasingly large private corporate jets are flying in and out of the facility, no commercial airlines currently offer service to the general public.
The county Board of Supervisors will vote soon on a new 20-year master plan for Palomar, and North County residents have mixed feelings about the airport’s future.
Commercial airlines have pulled out
The small public terminal at Palomar is empty. The arrivals and departure boards are blank. But step onto the tarmac and you’ll see jets landing and taking off, one after another.
So what’s happening here?
San Diego County owns Palomar Airport, and the public terminal is part of a $75 million investment the county made in the regional airport seven years ago. But Biz Air was the latest in a number of commercial airlines to discover its business model just didn’t fly - flights from Palomar to Las Vegas stopped earlier this year. Before that, United offered a commuter jet service to Los Angeles, but that ended last year.
Olivier Brackett, the manager at Palomar Airport, said there is a demand in North County for commercial airline service.
“When SkyWest was flying, we had 50,000 people a year using Palomar Airport, flying commercially,” Brackett said.
One of the reasons United pulled its Sky West flights last year was because the 4,897-foot runway is too short for the airline’s new aircraft.
Corporate air travel taking off
Private corporate jets, however, find Palomar a convenient place to touch down in North County.
A little west of the modest public terminal is a well-appointed two-story terminal wrapped in mirrored glass where corporate passengers arrive. Premier Jet is one of five major aviation businesses based at Palomar that provide hangers, refueling and maintenance services to private jets.
There are 70 jets home-based at Palomar, and larger private jets are increasingly stretching the limits of the runway.
A new master plan in the works
In October, an Airport Advisory Committee, appointed by Supervisor Bill Horn, recommended a new 20-year master plan, that will include safety improvements and a possible 800-foot runway extension.
County Airports Manager Peter Drinkwater told the committee that in the last year the airport has seen 6,000 takeoffs and landings from aircraft larger than the airport it is classified to serve.
The Federal Aviation Administration expects airports that see more than 500 operations a year from planes larger than the current airport design to make plans for upgrades to meet the demand.
So the master plan option the committee recommended would start by installing safety features: two arresting systems at each end of the runway to slow aircraft in case they overshoot.
Pointing across the airstrip, Brackett said the runway would also be reconfigured to make the landing area wider to accommodate larger wingspans.
The county’s airport consultant, Vince Hourigan of Kimley-Horn, estimated those improvements could cost between $60 million and $100 million. But that does not include the cost of extending the runway, which is the most obvious limiting factor for commercial jets.
An extension is made more complicated because the east end of the airstrip is over an old landfill. That would require installing underground support columns and dealing with methane gas emissions. A feasibility study done by the county in 2013 estimated the cost of extending the runway 900 feet would be about $70 million.
Who would pay?
The FAA might cover 90 percent of safety improvements, but much less to extend the runway. Most of that cost would fall to the county.
If public money is used, it remains unclear whether the improvements would benefit private corporate jets more than the commercial airlines used by the general public.
So far, no commercial airline has found a business model that works to operate out of Palomar.
The business community has a stake in making the airport viable for commercial travel.
Rick Baldridge, chief operating officer of Carlsbad-based telecommunication company ViaSat, said the company does not own a corporate jet. He would like to see the commercial flights come back.
“We have facilities all across the country, so connecting from an airport instead of having to drive down Interstate 5 for a connection made it very convenient for us,” Baldridge said.
Baldridge said traffic on I-5 to Lindbergh Field is now so bad ViaSat employees often drive north to John Wayne airport in Orange County, which is twice as far.
“Just from an infrastructure perspective, I think North County has been somewhat forgotten," Baldridge said. "Infrastructure investments are hard to calculate near-term paybacks, but the communities that have made them have thrived.”
But other North County residents who live around the airport are conflicted.
Craig Correll's home is about four miles north of the airstrip. He said he’d like to fly out of Palomar Airport, but he also worries about increased traffic on the ground.
Linda Culp, a principal planner for SANDAG, said the regional transit planning agency is waiting to see if the county decides to spend the millions it would take to extend the runway, making it a more viable commercial airport before planning any surface road widening.
Correll said the noise from the existing air traffic over his Carlsbad home is already terrible at times.
“It’s really, really noisy,” Correll said. “I have a home office so I run out to see what’s going on with the dog and whether we’ve got planes dropping into the backyard or not. It’s disruptive."
Correll said he also has concerns about the property values in his neighborhood.
“We know what happens in places like Orange County and Los Angeles, where air traffic and noise increases, the property values go down," Correll said. "My understanding is that you make a complaint, they write it down, it becomes of record and then nothing happens.”
Brackett said the airport received 2,000 noise complaints last year, but most of them came from a handful of homes southwest of the runway. He said larger jets are not necessarily louder than small aircraft, in fact newer jets can be quieter. Although Brackett manages the airport, he has no control over the air traffic.
“I am forbidden from restricting the airport to certain types of aircraft using it, or the times of day that aircraft can land and depart,” Brackett said.
The FAA controls the airspace, but Ian Gregor, public affairs manager of the FAA’s Pacific Division wrote:
“As far as limiting the size of aircraft using the airport, the FAA generally does not have a mechanism to prevent an aircraft larger than the design aircraft from using an airport. This is provided that the aircraft can safely land and take off on the available length, width and strength of runway pavement."
Vista residents also affected
Residents of the neighboring city of Vista have concerns, too.
Councilwoman Amanda Rigby said her constituents began to complain three years ago about larger jets flying into Palomar over their homes. She’s heard residents say they find unexplained black soot on their cars, and they can't help wondering if it's jet fuel.
“There have been times in the day time when a plane will be so big and so loud it can actually block the day light," Rigby said. "It shadows the house. It shadows the patio, and some of the residents have commented to me that their dishes and their windows rattle and a couple of things have fallen off of shelves. It has made significant impact on our community."
Gregor wrote that the FAA has not changed flight paths into Palomar and that their inspectors have not witnessed any planes flying lower than regulations allow around the airport:
“Our safety inspectors periodically conduct random surveillance to determine if pilots are operating according to the rules. Our inspectors have not witnessed any minimum altitude violations around Palomar,“ he wrote.
FAA representatives attended a meeting in Vista, but Rigby is not convinced.
“When the FAA says you can’t possibly know there’s an aircraft, and if there is, it’s so high above you you’ll never see it or hear it — if we’re experiencing that much noise and rattling windows and things falling off shelves, those aircraft are over our homes and they are bigger than the weekend aircraft," she said. “When they aren’t being honest with us and they are dismissing us, it makes us all wonder: What is the end game here?”
The Vista City Council considered writing to the FAA to ask for flight paths to be reconfigured. An underlying concern is whether a new master plan for Palomar would allow air traffic growth to take off “under the radar.”
If you build it, will they come?
Airport Advisory Committee member Cliff Kaiser asked at the October meeting, “If we build a bigger airport, isn’t that going to bring more, bigger aircraft?”
Drinkwater had this response:
“I don’t believe you are building a bigger airport, you are just improving the existing airport to serve the aircraft that are currently operating at the airport. You are making the most of what you’ve got."
Lengthening the runway is not in the initial plan to add safety features, and even widening the airstrip could be a decade away, according to consultant Vince Hourigan of Kimley-Horn and Associates. Ultimately, though, the preferred option for a new 20-year master plan recommended by the advisory committee does include an 800-foot extension to the runway. That could be the key to attracting a commercially viable airline.
Brackett said he expects to announce a new commercial airline that will offer flights for the general public next year, though if history is any indication, it’s challenging to come up with a feasible business model with a runway less than 5,000 feet long.
San Diego’s Regional Aviation Strategic Plan in 2011 included “enhancing commercial passenger service at McClellan-Palomar Airport” as a way to take the pressure off Lindbergh Field, which is due to reach capacity in 2035.
However, Keith Wilschetz, director of airport planning at the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, said it would be highly speculative to say whether expanding Palomar might help extend Lindbergh Field’s capacity in 20 years. He said the decision of whether to expand Palomar Airport is up to the county.
San Diego County Supervisors may vote December 16th on the new master plan for McClellan-Palomar Airport.