Wednesday, March 29, 2006 | There are three reasons why San Diegans have been fruitlessly arguing about where to put a new airport for the past three decades without a resolution. We don’t really know what we want, we can’t realistically make up our mind and we don’t bother to examine the issue in depth, while the ground has been moving under us all along.

A good example for this multifaceted dilemma is a column written by Pat Shea, a San Diegan I respect, entitled “Put a New Airport in the Desert.” There are valid arguments to be made in favor of this alternative and it was unnecessary and counterproductive to dub those who might argue against that proposition as whiners and nay-sayers with good jobs, special interests, and the like. It is this kind of gratuitous poisonous labeling that inhibits a productive debate on the issue.

Above all, there are two separate issues to consider about a new airport. San Diego needs to expand our regional airport facilities to accommodate the growing needs for the future.

It is an undeniable fact that Lindbergh is rapidly reaching its limit and unless provisions are made to enlarge them, and made soon to overcome it, San Diego will suffer the consequences. But one should not forget that there is another serious problem looming over the horizon, and that is San Diego needs good access to an international airport. Lindbergh carries the designation of being an international airport that stretches the point. Flying to and from Mexico or Canada does not cut it. For a short time British Airways made a try after spending about a half a million dollars to upgrade its facility, but gave up when it had too few passengers and too little working space to accommodate its aircraft.

Let us consider the regional airport issue: This means commercial air access to U.S. destinations, with a few (diminishing) flights to Canada and Mexico. Most of these flights will take less than three hours and will include a (diminishing) number of transcontinental flights. For these extended flights, San Diego passengers will eventually have to depart from Los Angeles.

If you have any doubt about these statements, try to find major U.S. airlines ready to publicly admit and act otherwise. The long-term projections for the economic advantages of transcontinental flights suggest that Los Angeles will trump San Diego. Again, if you have any doubt about that, just check out the evidence in my earlier articles in The San Diego Union Tribune and about Montreal vs. Toronto, more than 300 miles apart. It makes no economic sense to have two major transcontinental airports just 150 miles apart. But that is another story.

Does it make sense to you the reader, if you take into account the economic close proximity of Los Angeles to San Diego, to seriously accept the notion of spending tens of billions for a major regional airport 90 miles away in the Imperial Desert, connected by enough rapid ground transportation? Do you seriously believe that this kind of money is going to be made available anytime in the foreseeable future?

Most specialists estimate that it is likely to take at least a decade after the money becomes available to make this a reality. Then look again at what happened to Montreal, a city about the size of greater San Diego with the same airport problem.

It is quite unrealistic to compare Washington, our capital city with a very large set of extensive suburban centers and a vast professional population, for its saga about Dulles International Airport, 40 miles away. Baltimore Friendship Airport and Reagan Airport took care of Washington for years and still does. Sure Denver’s new airport is also 40 miles away, but it is on a very high frequency commercial air travel path without any other large city around, and not at the far end of the line as San Diego lies.

So what seems to be the answer to a realistic higher capacity regional airport for San Diego? What about Miramar? Other things being equal, and they are not, the thin concrete runways there are fine for fighter aircraft, but are they really suitable for large passenger ones?

And for anyone who is a pilot, the idea of dual use is not a serious one for high frequency use. That this was even proposed sends chills up and down my spine. It is never likely to happen. And forget about the other major military facilities. They are essential for U.S. security and should be allowed to remain so, but with one possible exception: The Marine Corps Recruit Depot can be moved and the Marines should be amenable to this because it could make Lindbergh viable as the one most reasonable alternatives, at the lowest cost and shortest time. It would help the military as well in many ways. That is, in my view, the only realistic way to go.

As to a much needed international airport, San Diego would have to discuss the matter with Los Angeles, because LAX is also reaching the end of the line, and a joint international airport between the two cities is going to be essential for the entire Southern California area. But this is another issue that I have already and extensively written about, and it will perhaps be the subject of yet another article.

Elie A. Shneour, a native of France and World War II U.S. veteran, is president of Biosystems Institutes, Inc. and research director of Biosystems Research Institute of San Diego.

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