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Expansion is in Lindbergh Field’s future according to authorities

Now that voters have rejected airport alternatives to Lindbergh Field, what’s at issue is how best to redevelop San Diego’s existing international airport to accommodate commercial airport travelers in the long-term.

That was the message conveyed by Airport Authority chairman Alan Bersin during remarks at La Jolla Town Council’s April 12 monthly meeting. Bersin was invited by the council to clue the public in on what’s next for regional airport planning in the aftermath of last November’s vote on Proposition A, a measure asking the public to sanction further exploring utilizing Miramar Marine Corps Air Station for joint use as a commercial airport. Proposition A failed 62 percent to 38 percent countywide, losing in all 18 cities and all eight San Diego Council Districts, including unincorporated areas.

Bersin, former San Diego schools superintendent, now chairs the nine-person San Diego Regional Airport Authority board, which, among other things, oversees operations and development of Lindbergh Field.

“The voters have spoken,” Bersin told the town council. “In order to prepare Lindbergh for the next generation, we have to improve its capacity. We do that in two ways: by improving the footprint of the airport making it more efficient for the 18 million people using the airport now. Secondly, we need to enhance capacity by coordinating with other airports within the county and within the region. We have 147 acres that we need to incorporate into Lindbergh. That is the basic work before us.”

Maximum capacity at Lindbergh Field, a single-runway airport, has been estimated at approximately 24 million passengers, about 280,000 operations annually. If something is not done to upgrade airport capacity, consultants warn Lindbergh’s runways may be congested as early as 2015 before reaching full capacity in 2021.

There are 16 airports in San Diego County. Four are military.

Improving Lindbergh Field will take about 15 years, Bersin estimated, adding there is much work to be done in laying the groundwork for future airport planning. “We have no long-term aviation plan that says, ‘Here’s the best way to allocate different types of traffic to get the maximum utility out of our airfields,’ ” said Bersin. “We have to do that.”

Ed Ward, a La Jolla Town Councilmember who was an outspoken critic of the Miramar joint-use proposal, speaking on his own behalf, praised Bersin’s optimistic attitude toward remaking Lindbergh Field. But Ward cautioned it’s going to be a difficult task, even determining what the scope of improvements should be.

Ward talked about what he’d like to see done with future airport planning at Lindbergh Field. “No one has really addressed the solution that can be found at Lindbergh Field, at Brown Field and at other privately used airports in our area,” he said. “It’s my contention Lindbergh needs to be off-loaded with flights - charter, private and cargo aircraft - that really don’t need to be there and can be relocated to other airports. Let’s move private cargo and charter aircraft to other airports like Brown Field.”

Ward agreed with Bersin that Lindbergh Field needs improved facilities and better parking and traffic management. “However, many of us are not convinced we need a second runway,” he said. “I do not believe Lindbergh Field will ever become an international hub. There are over 106 acres of vacant or unused land ready for development to improve Lindbergh Field facilities. Let’s move forward.”

On the horizon, Lindbergh Field faces two deadlines Bersin referred to as “crunches.” “By 2025, there will be a crunch on operations, landings and takeoffs,” he said. “In 2030, there will be a crunch on the number of people you can get into, and out of, the airport.”

In the near term, Bersin added there is an immediate need to add 10 more gates to the airport. He said there is another important item that must also be dealt with. “With those 10 gates, we need to get some kind of split-level runway,” he said. “We can’t burden the roadway into Lindbergh. We have to have a split arrival and departure roadway that separates those who are leaving the airport, from those who are bringing passengers to the airport. We can do that.”

It’s also important to note, said Bersin, that San Diego is a destination airport. “People come to San Diego to stay,” he said. “They don’t come here to transfer to another airline. Only 5 percent of our passengers actually do some kind of interline transfer out of San Diego.”

Bersin promised the public will have a voice in what’s going to happen next to update Lindbergh Field to expand its future capacity. “The people have set the broad parameters,” Bersin said. “Agencies like ours (Airport Authority), which are authorized to make decisions on behalf of the community, have got their marching orders from the public. The issue is to plan and execute, with skill and knowledge. It’s emminently a doable, solvable problem. We just have to work on it.”