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Opinion

Commentary: Continuing with San Diego airport expansion ignores COVID-19’s damage to demand and finances

A plane descends for landing at San Diego International Airport.
A plane descends for landing at San Diego International Airport.
(File)

Guest commentary:

First and foremost, Quiet Skies San Diego wishes everyone good health and safety during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

Much has happened in the last several months. Since our last update in February, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority has been whipsawed, experiencing a huge reduction in demand for air travel after setting another passenger record in 2019 with 25 million. The airline industry is in serious financial trouble, projecting route cancellations, layoffs and other cost-cutting measures and “right sizing.”

Airports globally are at a standstill. San Diego’s tourism industry is heavily impacted, and our unemployment stands at record numbers. On April 15, The Union-Tribune reported San Diego Airport’s “deep dive” in revenue, “forcing it to slash expenses and possibly delay the start late next year of a $3 billion project to expand its aging Terminal 1.”

The Airport Authority’s CEO, Kim Becker, said on April 15 that “there is concern about the length of the recovery time,” emphasizing that the airport’s financial forecasts are so unstable that they cannot provide a reasonable look into the future.

Does San Diego need to spend $3 billion of taxpayer funds to build 11 new gates and additional “remain overnight” jet parking places (“RONs”) to accommodate more flight operations? Will airline revenues and fees be there to pay for that cost? Do we need a new “Grand Central Station” public infrastructure and “people mover” to access the airport?

These questions will not be answered for several years.

Before the pandemic was recognized in the United States, Quiet Skies San Diego on Feb. 7 filed a legal complaint, called a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) case, challenging the Airport Authority’s assertion that more jet noise from additional flight operations is a “necessary but unavoidable” consequence of the Airport Authority’s $3 billion airport development plan.

The CEQA case says the Airport Authority is putting profit ahead of human health and points to the correlation between increased commercial jet noise and coronary vascular disease, diabetes and related adverse human health consequences like sleep deprivation, anxiety and cognitive deficits.

Five weeks later, on March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his statewide shelter-in-place order addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the precipitous drop in demand for airline travel.

In light of all these circumstances, and the quiet that has descended over La Jolla and other coastal communities during the airline industry retrenchment, Quiet Skies San Diego offered to stay the litigation for several months to allow the dust to settle, with either side authorized to restart the litigation with written notice. The Airport Authority rejected the proposal.

Quiet Skies then offered to settle and dismiss its CEQA lawsuit if the airport agreed to withdraw from its airport development plan adding 11 new gates and more overnight jet parking places that would mean more planes departing at the crack of dawn and flying over homes in the wee hours and landing late at night past curfew. The Airport Authority rejected that offer, too.

We then offered to dismiss the litigation if the airport agreed to finalize the two FAA-funded noise mitigation studies and implement their material noise mitigation solutions before going ahead with the $3 billion airport development project. The Airport Authority refused that, too.

It is obvious the Airport Authority board intends to plow ahead with the litigation and its expansion plans, notwithstanding the economic and health devastation around them and disregard for the ground truth that is COVID-19.

The new reality: Federal funds, local taxpayer funds and dollars from the now-taxpayer-supported airlines will drive forward a project that is wholly unnecessary in light of present circumstances. The Airport Authority is apparently betting on a return to record-breaking passenger traffic and maximum flight operational capacity in San Diego, and they see the lawsuit challenging the impact to human health associated with aircraft noise as an obstacle to fulfilling those goals.

So continue the litigation we must or risk that in several years’ time, airline demand and flight operations return to 2019 levels and the associated noise overwhelms La Jolla and our other coastal communities.

Consider the peace and quiet that the community is experiencing now without planes incessantly and needlessly flying directly overhead and close to our coastline.

“Neighborhoods and people pay the price for increased jet noise with their health,” said Dr. Matthew Price, president of Quiet Skies La Jolla and an interventional cardiologist at Scripps Clinic and director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at the Anderson Medical Pavilion, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.

“Peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated clear associations between jet noise and stress, high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure and atherosclerosis, sleep disruptions, cognitive abilities, anxiety and depression. These are serious risks to human health, which are made much worse by more noise.”

Quiet Skies San Diego is in favor of smart growth, economic recovery and expansion, putting the tourism industry back to work and a return to some semblance of normalcy. If updating Terminal 1 and adding more gates are necessary, do so with accompanying noise mitigation measures, like flying departures farther over the ocean before turning right or left. There is now the luxury of time to get this right.

Anthony Stiegler is co-founder and secretary of Quiet Skies La Jolla.


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