Monday, May 08, 2006 | Since 1999, fewer and fewer planes have used Lindbergh Field. No kidding. Traffic declined.

San Diego’s main airport hosted 222,354 takeoffs and landings in 1999. In 2005, however, the total for the year was lower: 220,210. (See the proof.)

Jeff Belden, a Northwest pilot, formerly of San Diego, calls this a “permanent lull in airport traffic” that he sees nationwide. Jack McGuire, a Boeing VP, explains that the planes are packed tighter now. Besides more seats, he said, roughly 80 percent are full today compared to about 60 percent a few years ago. This is why there are 2,000 commercial airplanes now parked on the desert, covered with tarps. (There must be some empty planes cruising around at night somewhere, since I’ve experienced plenty of 100% loads during daylight recently.)

Finally, the Official Airline Guide statistics back up this trend, showing a 5-percent decline in scheduled activity from Lindbergh since 1999.

Yet with millions of dollars allocated for public relations, educating San Diegans about our impending “airport crisis,” these basic facts were somehow misplaced.

All the same indicators, by the way, show passenger totals, with more crammed into each fuselage, growing by less than 2% per year through this span. Booming, eh?

This all can change, of course. If terrorist acts don’t ever occur again, that could help air travel recover. But Osama’s still on the loose. Way more important: Maybe we’ll stumble across some vast new oil fields, where we can drill, causing a drop in fuel prices. It could happen.

And if Internet usage drops, perhaps business travel might pick up again. So far, no hint of that, but maybe, just maybe.

Now that our officials have finished proposing Imperial County, March Air Force Base and Borrego Springs, and doing so with straight faces, the Miramar option almost started to look reasonable. Except the military isn’t buying it.

And more to the point, perhaps the only point, San Diego air traffic simply isn’t growing.

My favorite thing about San Diego is returning from trips. During descent, if seated on the left window, I gaze across the Mexican foothills first, then the Pacific, followed by Coronado and the bay, threading through downtown and landing. Stepping outside, the salt air brings me home and my pulse slows.

It’s magic.

Driving along the harbor, despite having lived here for decades, I still smile at the masts bobbing in the water, blue canvas and white hulls and the great park roadway alongside. Just ahead and to the right, the San Diego skyline sparkles.

Where else? Name another airport with that kind of breathless approach. Traffic’s generally busy but rarely jammed.

Let’s imagine the change if the Miramar impossibility were achieved. Coming in over the foothills, if we sit at a left window, the natural splendors of Tierra Santa and North Clairemont greet us. The world’s largest dealer, La Mesa RV, and Cubic’s fire training accent the vision.

Not so special, huh?

Passengers on the right see a blur of tilt-wall concrete buildings, the largest yellow steel building in the county, housing Mayflower, plus a blur of KFC, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Burger King, ARCO, Shell, car dealers galore, the furniture pyramid and one gazillion mattress, tile, carpet and lamp stores.

Franchise city, ho-hum and no water.

The joys of 805 and I-15 traffic will be our visitors’ next exposure to San Diego. There’s merit to the point that North County growth has shifted the center of our population. Old merit.

Fifteen-thousand, four-hundred and seventy one people moved into San Diego County last year while 16,083 left. If you want to see growth, check downtown and Chula Vista in that same year, shifting the center back.

But none of this matters. Air traffic is down at Lindbergh. Anybody with a 10-year memory, who’s sat on the deck at Mr. A’s watching the planes stacked up for landings back then, and has repeated that recently has seen the difference. And the raw data proves it. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours went into studying and promoting this “problem.”

Did anybody check the traffic figures? Anybody?

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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