Friday, April 07, 2006 | How can San Diego meet its future air transportation demand? With the creation of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority (SDCRAA), a vehicle was put in place to analyze and implement solutions that could benefit and enhance the region’s air-transportation system.

Our future needs can be met economically by careful analysis and a regional approach. I propose a three-step process to meet projected requirements.

First, we must recognize that Lindbergh Field is a part of the solution and will be our primary airport for the foreseeable time to come. We must set a plan in place to ensure that it will be developed in a way that allows it to operate at its maximum potential.

Second, we must allow the regional airport authority to truly become a “regional” body of governance and bring all the airports in the county under its control. With these first two steps in place, the dynamic for impending requirements are different than our current approach to the problem.

The final step is to determine what these new requirements would be and then study potential relief airport sites or options that may be necessary to accommodate future demand growth.

Air transportation demand outpacing supply is not a problem unique to San Diego. A recent study by the Federal Aviation Administration concluded that 18 airports and eight metropolitan areas (other than San Diego) would need increased capacity by 2020.

The effects of the constraints to these airports today in “flow-control” issues delaying our departures from San Diego to other destinations. This flow control is the FAA’s way of queuing aircraft into busy airspace to prevent delays in the air. As more and more airports become constrained and landing slots become scarce, air carriers will have to resort to larger aircraft to lower their frequency of flights in order to meet demand. Passenger counts will increase with fewer operations. Airports will be able to encourage migration to larger capacity aircraft through fee structures and slot auctions.

Here in San Diego, the level of constraints and when these will begin to affect our economy is a matter for debate. We are hardly in a crisis at this time. Many of our neighbors in the Southwest will feel the pinch long before we will

Delays will be cause by traffic logjams at destination airports. Las Vegas already has flow control in effect almost daily. Orange County and LAX operate near capacity now. In looking for a “regional answer,” we must approach this issue from the perspective of Southern California as a whole. San Diego International Airport (SDIA) at a record 17.6 million passengers in 2005 was only operating at two-thirds of its current configured potential. It would severely strain the entire Southern California region to take away an airport such as SDIA with a 25-30 million passenger per year capacity.

To meet future demand it will be necessary to improve our current airport. Today SDIA is more constrained by our ground-transportation infrastructure than our single runway. We must ensure through the Master Plan process that measures are put in place now to keep our airport operating efficiently into the future.

Having SDIA situated in the center of our business, cruise ship and convention & tourism industry will always be an economic catalyst. The residents of San Diego enjoy the convenience of their downtown airport; it is part of what makes San Diego America’s Finest City.

We need to recognize that Lindbergh Field is our primary airport and will be viable for the foreseeable future. We must continue to improve the infrastructure to maximize our airport’s potential.

Over the next 20 years technology will serve to greatly increase the capability and utility of our smaller airports. The system as it stands right now is not working to develop our airports cohesively to meet our future demand and take advantage of their potential increased capabilities that new technology will bring. The introduction of ultra light jets and tilt rotor aircraft is just around the corner. Marines fielding the MV-22 Osprey will bring trained pilots, mechanics and technicians to the region. San Diego could potentially lead the world in tilt rotor business travel. We need a ‘regional’ airport governance to ensure our airports are developed with the vision to take full advantage of technology as it develops. The time and opportunity is today.

In creating the SDCRAA, the State Legislature paved the way for San Diego County to adopt a regional approach to utilize the airports we already have to their maximum potential. The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority Act defines the SDCRAA:

“…as a local government entity of regional government, with jurisdiction extending throughout the County of San Diego…The Authority shall have the exclusive responsibility within its area of its jurisdiction to study, plan, and implement any improvements, expansion, or enhancements at existing or future airports within its control.”

In order for the SDCRAA to truly be able to act as a “regional authority” it should have control of all the region’s civil airports.

The SDCRAA currently acts as the Airport Land Use Commission for all of the county’s airports including Military. In this capacity they ensure that land use surrounding airports are compatible in accordance with Federal and State regulations designed to protect the public from aviation hazards. They are updating the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plans for all the airports in the county.

It is time that they had more than just land use oversight at these airports. With all county airports under control of the authority, by default military airports would automatically come under authority control if they are ever vacated without having to go through an embarrassing ballot measure that pits us against the Navy and Marine Corps.

Any regional airport solution that does not include a truly “regional airport authority” will be deficient. We need to work together to take advantage of this opportunity!

As the Southern California region’s air-transportation demand begins to exceed supply, the market will be in the position to support another airport. We should work with Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Imperial Counties to determine where the best site for that relief airport is.

If a site in Imperial or Riverside is found, we can plan our ground transportation infrastructure to take advantage of that site. If a San Diego site is determined to be the answer, then we can begin the process required to build it. This site could be named an airport-potential zone.

The land purchased, mitigated and made part of the regional transportation plan such that when the time is right and it is economically feasible an airport can be built based on our future needs and technology. The costs of developing a new airport are tremendous. The estimate of just the supporting infrastructure costs associated with the proposed Campo site is over $10 Billion. An airport designed today will be built to support yesterday’s technology and needs.

We don’t need to build yesterday’s airport tomorrow. Let’s identify a site for our future relief airport now and build it only when the market will support it and for the needs of our future technology.

The air transportation situation in San Diego is not in crisis as some would lead us to believe. Both Las Vegas and Phoenix operate with fairly constrained airspace issues with no visible signs of economic collapse. We have the benefit of a Legislature that had the wisdom to create an entity that has the ability to study, plan and implement improvements to our airports to meet our future demand.

We have been given a tool via next November’s ballot measure to choose a future airport site. I’m afraid much valuable time has been wasted while waiting and hoping for the Base Realignment Commission to surrender a military base. This has unfortunately put the SDCRAA in a position to have to make a rather hasty decision on a future airport site with no obvious options available.

We should delay the site selection vote and instead use this ballot to give SDCRAA some teeth, and give them control of all the city and county civil airports. The Authority should recognize that Lindbergh Field is the primary airport for San Diego and study in earnest a supplemental airport site or other option for the 2008 ballot. We can afford to take our time to make the right decision.

We can meet our future demand without requiring our citizens to pay the large infrastructure investment of building a new airport. We are not alone in facing constraints. As the nation’s airspace becomes more and more crowded new efficiencies will have to be developed to meet our national demand. We need to make the most of our existing airports in San Diego County with Lindbergh as our main air carrier airport. Palomar, Brown, Gillespie, Montgomery and Ramona provide relief to SDIA and primary service for our General Aviation and Executive Transport needs.

With the efficiency of our existing runways maximized, we can work with our Southern California neighbors to determine an airport solution that benefits the whole region. This I believe is a realistic airport approach.

Jim Panknin is a resident of Santee. He is a retired Marine Pilot who currently works as a commercial pilot flying on demand charters out of Lindbergh Field. He has over 20 years of world wide flight experience and in his current capacity he is a regular user of all the airports of the Southwest United States and is very familiar with current conditions in the air traffic control system. Jim represents the City of Santee and the Miramar Community Leaders Forum on the SDCRAA’s Citizens Advisory Committee which he is the chairman.

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