Tuesday, February 14, 2006 | Can you really, truly grasp how badly San Diego needs a new airport? Test yourself with the following five questions:

The number of passengers landing and taking off from Lindbergh Field just keeps growing, yet there’s no room for adding runways. Since 1998, how many more passengers on average have passed through our airport yearly?

A. Every year nearly 19 percent more passengers pass through the airport.

B. The increases have been steady, with the exception of the year following Sept. 11, averaging between 10 percent and 14 percent annually.

C. Growth is down to an average rate of 2 percent each year.

San Diego is one of America’s largest cities and one of the faster growing. The FAA just released studies showing which airports suffer from the most congestion. Where did San Diego rank?

A. We’re the worst.

B. Only three airports in the country have more delays than San Diego, and the third is almost in a tie with us.

C. Our town didn’t make the top 20 for problems with congestion.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority eliminated some locations that were proposed to replace Lindbergh Field. So which of the following are no longer contenders?

A. Boulevard, 75 minutes of boring driving into our nation’s highest-temperature and scorched-tarmac town was scrutinized. It has been studied alongside March Air Force Base, a mere 95 bumper-to-bumper miles up Interstate 15. The Imperial Valley was touted, with a straight face, as another prime candidate. Have you ever been there? Me neither. Check Rand McNally. The current Imperial Valley airport is 119 miles from the San Diego Zoo and our resurging downtown. Ontario’s closer. John Wayne Airport in Orange County beats them all. Remember, if you guess “A” is the correct answer, you’re guessing that all three of these are in contention.

B. Miramar, with lots of land to the west is a favorite, but already suffers horrendous traffic jams on Interstate 15 and the military says “no way.”

C. Brown Field 21 miles from downtown, has only two lane access but could be interesting as a mammoth airfield that’s open and unused.

The Chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority holds a thankless job, without authority, but it pays handsomely as does being on the committee. What’s the background of the Chairman who accepted this Kamikaze task?

A. He or she is a hard-nosed business executive, but outsiders underestimate developers’ lust to convert the airport – like the Naval Training Center – into one more visually inspired Liberty Station. Our Chamber of Bobbleheads agrees. (Is anybody publishing those Liberty Station postcards yet? Has the film agency asked Hollywood to start shooting in that location?)

B. He or she is a seasoned political operative, who can manage outside pressure to pour taxpayers’ concrete, no matter what.

C. He or she is a retired military person, whose last civic job was head of Dick Murphy’s “Blue Ribbon Panel.” This was the group that announced, after much costly study, that the city of San Diego’s finances were in fine shape.

What category of air traffic grew by 47 percent over the last five years?

A. Mail, in and out of Lindbergh, boomed.

B. Many more passengers came and went through our airport.

C. Air freight, inbound and outbound, grew that much.

And the five answers…

Drumroll please… are all C.

Hmm. Maybe we desperately need a new airport; it’s just so irritating that the numbers get so uncooperative. Hate that.

But numbers don’t always talk straight. The big picture on transportation, and we’ve got to get a bit philosophical here since we’re looking a couple decades out in the future, proves that nothing is more constant than change.

Even with transportation.

First we had those Conestoga Wagons, carrying hardy pioneers across the flatlands. Not so many years later, stagecoaches opened up the west. And soon the steam engine made trains possible, and our nation became one.

Next, this thing called a Model-T turned us all into travelers, beyond buggy distances. Then Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief during World War II was dazzled by Germany’s autobahns and after pounding the snot out of those Nazis, came home, won the presidency and built our interstate freeways.

Trains slumped, trucks flourished, jet engines emerged, flights got faster and suddenly airports were key. Yet the recent jump in oil prices has thrown almost every airline into a loss. And, last year, railroad traffic grew more than Lindbergh Field.

Yikes. Trains beat planes.

Many things suddenly crimp air travel. Crimp, don’t kill. But simply restraining this mode, just like stagecoaches eclipsed the covered wagons, makes a difference. Look around for hints. Last week, the Wall Street Journal devoted a full column, the top to bottom of a page to videoconferencing tips. Videoconferencing? That’s not as good as being there, but it sure saves time and money.

Saving time and money wins. Often.

Teleconferencing is now preferred by many boards of directors and even more for committee meetings as it saves time and money. There are also these strange things called the “Internet” and other confusers like “e-mail” or “instant messaging” and – gasp, some people are even going online for their news.

Can you imagine that? On-line news? Maybe even on-line opinions? Sorry, I went too far with that thought.

Anyway, ink-on-paper journalists are finding it tougher and tougher to find jobs or maintain salaries as circulation figures for every major newspaper have declined recently. E-mail and the Internet hold down Lindbergh’s mail business, dropping it from 30,031 tons in and out for 1999 to 28,610 tons for the comparable time last year.

But there is freight. We do need to worry about freight. Freight jumped by 46,000 tons.

And Brown Field sits empty.

Pave a couple more lanes to Otay Mesa, shift all freight to Brown Field. That gives us decades, easy, to watch. Maybe oil prices will drop, and perhaps the slowing of growth in air travel isn’t a trend. I’m not arguing against either, but I sure wouldn’t sell my Exxon shares today and can’t quite see buying United Airlines stock.

Why, now that downtown might be rebounding, would we abandon the most convenient access from the airport to a business district that exists in the United States? Toss in oceanfront views out the plane’s window, the country’s best zoo a $5 cab ride away, a cruise ship terminal right down the road, an inspired convention center with new hotels popping up nearby, plus SeaWorld and a ballpark – we’ve got the best downtown around.

Does our Chamber of Commerce understand that San Diego’s a tourist town?

Gary Sutton is a retired CEO. He’s the author of “Corporate Canaries…Avoid Business Disasters with a Coal Miner’s Secrets.” Feel free to email him at

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