Tuesday, June 13, 2006 | “If San Diego is to prosper and begin to impress the world as a city of some significance, we must promptly begin planning a more efficient and less intrusive airport than Lindbergh Field can ever become.”

That loaded sentence was the theme of a series of columns I wrote in 1956 at the urging of my editors at The San Diego Union-Tribune. In a still

provincial community whose residents were generally satisfied with it just as it was, the issue set off wide but inconclusive debate at the top and inexplicable shrugs among citizens to whom air travel is a necessity.

Then as now, we were wary even of mentioning it, but the steep airborne descent that each landing flight made, within seconds, from Bankers Hill to Lindbergh’s runway has never caused an accident — not in the air, at least. But unwary visitors in their cars along Pacific Highway hear the engines suddenly blast just overhead and see some house-sized monster, wheels down and seeming to be aiming for them, and they must assume that

they are about to die.

Lindbergh has had its glory years. The notion of airport congestion at San Diego would have seemed a joke at the time I made my first flight from Lindbergh to Las Vegas. It was in a propeller-driven DC-4, which we considered a stunning leap forward from the workhorse DC-3 of World War II.

Of course there was about a 15-degree uphill climb for passengers within those planes, from the ramp entry door in the rear to the seats up front, and the pilots made that hike just as we passengers did, bracing on the backs of chairs as we ascended. After all, those DC’s were only a fraction of the length of today’s passenger jets.

And Lindbergh was a far quieter place. Those who live on the bluffs above the airport to the east can tell you: Back then, there were long lulls of quiet between take-offs.

Now, half a century later, glancing at those old airport columns simply suggests the contrast of civic eras. We are reminded of how quickly, in that era, the resultant furor of community disagreement flickered out. In contrast, the other is how long — how many years, now? Disagreement and indolence have stalled planning for a jet-age airport in San Diego.

Many of the same arguments echo in this current airport flurry. This generation of partisans seems to be no less passionate in their convictions that their own cause is righteous.

Yet that debate over a new airport in the 1950s simply faded away. Some citizens disparagingly alleged that the entire debate had been triggered by the hunger that hovered over San Diego Chamber of Commerce board meetings for even more rapid population growth.

Our polls of homeowners then showed scant interest in a new airport. It wasn’t only the prospect of aircraft noise they feared. They had discovered San Diego, and were in no hurry to see their newfound haven mucked up like the cities from which they had escaped.

Then, as now, a large faction seemed content to drive to Los Angeles Airport

to connect with long-distance flights. Blessed with our gasoline taxes, California freeways have maintained relatively manageable traffic.

That factor still contributes to the reluctance of air carriers to schedule more non-stop flights between San Diego and other major cities. Contrary to general thought, the airlines’ hesitancy is not based on Lindbergh Field’s capacity so much as on passenger load factors: how much passenger traffic the market will support.

Building a larger airport in an equally central and convenient location as Lindbergh might lead eventually to more non-stop flights in and out of San Diego. But can such a site really ever become available, short of condemnation? It could certainly relieve traffic congestion around Lindbergh Field, although even projections of that congestion that we reported 50 years ago turned out to be wildly exaggerated. While everyone may express an opinion, the current airport issue is not unanimously regarded either as new or urgent.

We have heard surprisingly little from the airlines in this current chapter of our airport controversy. Airline officials with whom I have talked do not seem certain that Lindbergh Field air traffic is yet critically constricted by ground traffic. Certainly not enough, one official told me, to justify, from his point of view, the predictable increased charges to the airlines (and presumably to passengers) to help write-off the cost of a new airport.

Yet airport issues have become a basic and, to many, a diverting exercise in a city facing even less pleasant and more intractable issues. Next to travel, just talking about travel can be diverting.

But it’s decision time. No doubt Lindbergh Field will long remain an airport; just as smaller, closer-in old airports continue to serve New York and Chicago. It was on Mayor Dick Murphy’s watch that the city lost the chance to make Brown Field a major factor in the city’s airport system. We San Diegans should stir ourselves to oversee the work of the regional airport authority and to avoid another blunder like that.

Neil Morgan is a member of the board of directors and senior editor of voiceofsandiego.orgSend a letter to the editor.

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