Regardless of whether a site for a new regional airport is located or not, operators of the county's existing airports must coordinate with each other to handle future demands -- or risk significant leakage of businesses fleeing to better-developed regions.
So say officials from three of the area's airports, Lindbergh Field, Brown Field and the Tijuana International Airport, formerly Rodriguez Field, at a Thursday meeting of the Citizens Coordinate for Century 3.
"You've gotta play with the cards you're dealt -- and San Diego's cards aren't good," said Larry Killeen, president of the San Diego Air Commerce Center at Brown Field. "We don't have a lot of aces and Kings -- we have fours and fives."
Killeen, who used to be the executive director of the San Diego Unified Port District, moved to SDACC to help expand Brown Field to serve as a viable cargo airport. The plan faces opposition mostly from homeowners who recently moved to newly built residential subdivisions in the Otay Ranch area of Chula Vista.
"There's not a lot of options where the airport is going to go to, and we think Brown Field is part of the solution," Killeen said. "We're trying to work together with Lindbergh Field to solve a difficult problem."
On the drawing board is the redevelopment of Brown Field into an industrial and air-cargo complex that would cater to large cargo carriers and not service passengers.
The commerce center has received financing for the initial $250 million worth of infrastructure, including construction of roads, and runway refurbishment and expansion from 8,000 feet to 11,500 feet. An additional $1 billion worth of improvements over a 12 to 15-year period would create industrial warehouses and distribution centers, as well as commercial and retail spaces.
Killeen believes NIMBYism may be the principal stumbling block when the San Diego City Council considers the proposal in June.
"Let's be honest, we've got neighbors who have just moved next to us that are trying to dictate what the airport should do, even though we've been there for 80 years," Killeen said. "What did they think that they were moving next to? An airport is an airport."
If the airport is allowed to expand, Killeen believes that the commerce center could capture as much as 50 percent of the cargo business that is currently driving north to Los Angeles International and Ontario airports.
"The air-cargo market in San Diego is about 500,000 to 700,000 tons, and approximately 80 percent is traveling to L.A. for shipment," he said. "That's costing the region billions each year."
Several miles to the south of Brown Field is Tijuana International Airport, recently privatized by Aeropuertos Mexicanos del Pacifico. Casey Development is helping the new owner draft a plan for the consolidation of its 12 airports in Mexico, with the aid of Lufthansa Consulting, according to Ralph Nieders, project manager for Casey. Upon completion of redevelopment plans, Anea, a governmental agency in Madrid, Spain, will operate the airport.
Aeropuertos is considering expanding the Tijuana facility to include a passenger terminal on the U.S. side of the border, Nieders said. Departing passengers would travel to the Mexican portion of the airport via a 250-foot-long moving walkway and enter Mexican customs before embarking on their airplanes. Those arriving would enter U.S. Customs on the north side of the border.
Additionally, the Mexican portion of the facility would be doubled to serve 7 million passengers, about 3 million more than the current service level at the airport. The runway would be rebuilt, and cargo and maintenance operations expanded. Trucks servicing the air cargo operations would leave the airport via the Otay Border crossing, while passengers on the U.S. side would exit immediately to the redeveloped State Route 905.
Overall, the proposal could cost $100 million to develop over the next four to five years, Nieders said.
"We want to attract 'jump' flights, from Tokyo to Dallas, that could stop in Tijuana on the way," Nieders said. "Initially, we want to start with charter operations, though."
Both Nieders and Killeen believe that the two border region airports will not adversely compete with each other.
"It's really two different markets," Nieders said, adding that several vendors have expressed interest in both airports, validating that the airports could cohabitate the area successfully.
"Ralph (Nieders) presents something that is fascinating," Killeen said. "If we don't have options we're in deep trouble."
At Lindbergh Field, Port District staff is recommending that the board of commissioners further expand the airport in phases, said Thella Bowens, director of aviation for the district.
"We're recommending that the board focus on incremental steps to improve Lindbergh Field gradually over a 20-year period," Bowens said. "This should avoid severe operational difficulties in the near-term, and it does not overinvest in facilities in Lindbergh Field if a site for a new airport is located."
The first phase could include the $150 million construction of a new 10-gate terminal on the north side of Lindbergh Field with 3,100 new parking spaces. The Port District is also currently analyzing the cost feasibility of constructing an intermodal facility during the first phase that would service both the Coaster and the Metropolitan Transit Development Board's trolley line.
"During the first phase, we're trying not to put the least amount of money we need to put into Lindbergh and still meet our needs," Bowens said. "We don't want to put too much into Lindbergh Field to make it too difficult for the region to make a decision about the next airport."
The second phase would add four gates to the north terminal and expand the taxiway, provided that the Port District could acquire 27 acres of land from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Negotiations with the U.S. Marines are still under way, Bowens said.
Moreover, the Port District will only build the additional four gates if the demand has grown and an alternative site has not been chosen.
Projected costs for the second phase range from $93 million to $100 million.
A third phase, priced about $278 million, would consist of the development of a new runway if the Port District is able to acquire all of MCRD. The new runway would be oriented toward Robb Field in Ocean Beach, away from the rising terrain of Point Loma, allowing larger fully-loaded airplanes to use Lindbergh Field. It would also entail the addition of gates on the west side of the new Terminal 2 addition, as well as new air cargo facilities, and upgrades or replacements of the older terminals.
"If we can't have MCRD, we would just become the most efficient one-way airport in the world," Bowens said, adding that the district would most likely build out the additional gates at Terminal 2, construct double-deck parking and roadways, and renovate or replace the older terminals.
"But you will still begin to experience severe congestion on Harbor Drive," Bowens said.
At the same time, the Port District is working with the San Diego Association of Governments in its efforts to locate a site for a new regional airport. The first priority of the initiative, however, is to coordinate the development plans of each of the existing airports.
Killeen believes that linkage between the current airports can be successful, because the existing airports do not necessarily have to have conflicting interests.
"All three of us here are compatible," Killeen said. "I don't see a problem with us coordinating what we do."