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Lindbergh Field adding flexibility, room for expanded service

It’s not just about the terminal expansion; it’s everything that’s freed up as a result of the terminal expansion that’s important, according to Hampton Brown, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s director of air services development.

“It will give us more flexibility, especially at certain times of day,” Brown said.

It’s not a secret, Brown said, that with its expanded terminal just months from completion, the airport is targeting Central and South America as future destinations, perhaps within the next 10 years.

But domestic markets may have something to take from it sooner than that. And the carriers that fly to them might be prime and targeted for filling that extra capacity.

The addition of 10 new gates to Terminal 2 means travelers departing from San Diego could have more options to fly to underserved large markets across the country, and growing regional markets. Photo by Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg

“We know that certain frequencies in the mornings, in particular, like Washington Dulles, they would have added flexibility to gauge if they so desired. They have no impending plan to do so, but that possibility exists for the future,” Brown said.

It could also benefit markets that aren’t quite large enough to justify non-stops yet, but have growth prospects to sometime soon be there.

“I would say like the Norfolk region, with the Navy, is something we always think about for the future,” Brown added.

Already served by most of the major U.S. airlines, San Diego International Airport looks at the expansion as a chance to tell carriers they have capacity for expansion -- especially airlines now holding gates that are unable to handle a wide-bodied Boeing 767 operation -- like United Airlines’ gates.

That possibility wouldn’t exist without the expansion, since the new gates are designed to accommodate the new Boeing 787. Most of the gates at the airport now were designed for the Boeing 737, Brown said.

The Terminal 2 expansion in the $1 billion Green Build is adding 10 gates to the terminal. Brown said opportunities are created for both bigger airliners as well as regional ones -- opportunities that could benefit both the carriers and the airport. Those opportunities, he added, include some with smaller aircraft to under-served or regional markets, both in Mexico and the western United States -- places like Boise, Idaho; Spokane, Wash.; and Colorado Springs, Colo.

Brown said Alaska Airlines is an example of one carrier that could benefit from some of the shifting between the terminals, which will be coming as a result of the expansion. Alaska's small carrier affiliate Horizon, brown said, has recently added the Northern California markets of Santa Rosa, Fresno and Monterey.

United Airlines is moving to Terminal 2, freeing up space at Terminal 1 should a regional airline like that want to use the space by taking extra gates.

“We want to continue that kind of organic growth to these smaller markets that can be served, within 1,000 miles of San Diego with smaller regional types of equipment,” Brown said. “These are regional aircraft that can’t fit at the commuter terminal, they’re too big.”

Alaska Airlines spokesperson Marianne Lindsey said an expansion of service to San Diego International after the completion of Green Build is not in the plans.

But that could just be a matter of timing, as the airline’s recent expansions will have already been implemented by the time the project is scheduled to be done. The airline on March 29 also added service between Lindbergh Field and Boston’s Logan International, and is already planning on a June expansion to include the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

“We are in the old terminal, and all of our expansion has happened in the last year,” Lindsey said.

But there’s also room for growth with large markets where there is little or no competition, like to Sacramento, Seattle and Philadelphia, Brown added.

In July 2012, Brown delivered a presentation highlighting the airlines serving San Diego International Airport. With its list of 16 carriers at the time, the airport was able to serve 54 non-stop markets, according to the report.

According to Bryan Enarson, airport authority vice president of development, the Green Build improvements are expected to help the airport handle a projected doubling of passengers by 2030.

The airport experienced its recent heyday, so to speak, from mid-2007 to mid-2008. Between the two years, there were nine months during which Lindbergh Field had a total of 20,000 or more flights in or out. During early 2008, the airport saw significant and sustained growth in airline passengers, with two months of year-over-year monthly growth of 7 percent or more.

At that peak around 2008, Brown said, it was very difficult to schedule a morning departure in San Diego.

“If an airline wants to add some frequency to existing markets at times of day where heretofore it was not possible, it’s going to give them the flexibility to do that,” Brown said.

During 2012, the total passenger numbers rebounded after three years of mixed periods of ups and downs. Since September 2011, there have only been four months during which the airport did not see an increase in passengers going in or out as compared to the same year before.

Brown said that with the expanded terminal, and the possibilities it brings for the airport to attract expanded service from existing carriers there or even more carriers not yet there, that trend has a greater chance of continuing than reversing.

“The question would be is there enough consumer confidence in the summer, is there enough business activity this summer to fill those additional seats,” Brown said. “To that, I really cannot say. Intuitively, you would say yes, that should happen. But there’s a lot of uncertainty still in the economic sphere.”

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