Thursday, June 15, 2006 | When thinking about airports in San Diego’s future, it may be useful to remember that airports are no fun anymore.

Once, airports were important social centers, featuring strong emotions of hello and goodbye spiced by the thrill of flight. Today, airports have become pick-up and drop-off points. Family, lovers and friends can’t accompany the traveler to the gate, or wait at the gate to greet him. Lost with that, to the non-traveler, is the vicarious excitement of the air-travel experience itself.

The non-traveler becomes a taxi driver. Only ticketed passengers advance into the concourses; the nearest anyone else gets to the airplanes is the security gate.

So for the traveler, the terminal experience is memorable for getting through crowds, getting through security going out, and waiting for baggage coming back. For family, lovers and friends, the airport experience is feeling unwelcome at curbside. An airport is no longer a place to linger, for any reason other than to get onto or off of an airplane. The whole thing is a hassle.

What this suggests is that the terminal no longer has to be close to the airplanes. The terminal, with curbside check-in, ticket counters, security gates, baggage claim, restrooms, a couple of food bars and newsstands, can be located some distance away from the concourses, with a transportation link between them for ticketed passengers.

That model already exists, in Atlanta. From the terminal, at the airport’s west perimeter, subway trains transport travelers to and from several concourses. It was designed to spread out congestion, among both travelers and airliners. It could also have an application in San Diego, wherever its citizens decide – or not – to put an airport upgrade, but particularly at Lindbergh Field.

Under the new realities – an airport is no longer a place to linger – much of the available acreage at Lindbergh Field is wasted on the two terminals, and on parking. If all that acreage was bulldozed flat, the existing runway, which now cuts diagonally across the property, could be rotated south, parallel with Harbor Drive. That opens up the north acreage for the second runway, parallel to the first.

Both runways will be fed by gates at a single, long, skinny, concourse, either south or north of the runways. The concourse can have this skinny footprint and still accommodate food bars, shops and newsstands, with the necessary restrooms, etc., as they do in Atlanta.

The terminal is devoted to function – drop-off, pick-up, check-in, tickets, security, baggage claim, some parking, just like Atlanta. It is double-decked, departing passengers above and arriving passenger below. It is south of Harbor Drive, where the rental car agencies are now, or on the northwest side of the airport, east of the FedEx operation, where sits a huge open field sprinkled with parked cars. The terminal and concourse are connected by an Atlanta-style train system, underground or above ground, whichever works best, with four or five stops along the length of the concourse.

In the end, you have a trim, efficient facility that accomplishes the mission of the 21st-century airport: get a passenger out of a car and onto an airplane, and vice versa, with minimal presence of family, lovers and friends, which is exactly what Lindbergh has been reduced to now, but with all that wasted space dedicated to the extinct social footprint.

The basic design also addresses problems unique to San Diego. Most important: It is an idea that voters might – might – approve. It reduces a risk that dogs many San Diegans: changes in air travel might eventually make a sprawling new airport unnecessary. Twenty years from now, if weeds are growing in the cracks in Lindbergh’s second runway, it will mean less money thrown away.

San Diegans also are starting to talk about Lindbergh serving as a cap on metropolitan growth. Expansionists are heard to say a new airport is necessary if the metropolitan population is to grow from three million to six or seven or 10 million people. Imagine that: San Diego County, population 10 million. A second Lindbergh runway might represent a compromise on growth, to, say, four or five million.

Either way, somebody better alert the water authority.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, send a letter to the editor.

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