Palomar Airport Is Renovated To Lure Corporate Jets

Sunday, June 20, 2004
Upgrading to business class As Palomar Airport Is Renovated To Lure Corporate Jets, Private Pilots Fear They May Be Grounded
Elena Gaona

CARLSBAD – With wooden floors and walls covered in flight memorabilia, the restaurant at McClellan-Palomar Airport wraps visitors in another era, when few things were more glamorous than a small plane in the sky, its carefree pilot exposed to sun and wind. But that romantic era is long gone, and a glittering future ? a sleek corporate airplane – sits outside the restaurant, lined up on the taxiway. It’s still morning, but already several corporate jets have taken off, whisking away executives and other VIPs too busy to wait in line at bigger airports.

“There’s lots of millions on that ramp,” airport manager Floyd Best says, pointing out a $50 million Gulfstream jet, a $30 million Falcon 2000 and a $35 million Learjet.

What started as a regional airport 45 years ago is now one of the busiest single-runway airports in the country, with private planes, corporate jets and airline commuter flights.

The county-owned airport is increasingly surrounded by high-end businesses and upscale homes, which is reflected in the growing number of expensive planes.

The small-plane pilots, who represent the bulk of flights at Palomar Airport, say they’re being edged out to make way for big business.

Airport leaders say the airport is simply growing up, attracting corporate jets because of its advanced landing system and strategic location. They say it’s time to acknowledge the market shift.

“We’re in a transition period now,” Best says. “Corporations want their own plane, but, post-9/11, it’s cumbersome to use commercial planes (at large airports).”

“This is not some local pilot with his little Cessna 150 going to go putting around on the weekend,” county Airports Director Peter Drinkwater says. “That person is here, too, and is important. But what drives economics is a way to move people and networks and goods.”

Airport face-lift

While the planes keep getting ritzier, the airport continues to welcome travelers with an old terminal made up of modular units, hangars rusting and falling down from old age, the dated restaurant with creaking floors, and crowded parking lots that flood when it rains.

So the airport is getting a face-lift.

The terminal, restaurant, hangars, parking lots, main tie-down areas where planes are secured with chains but not covered, and commercial plane aprons will be replaced or expanded during the next six years if the county and private developers secure funding, clear environmental hurdles and get local and Federal Aviation Administration approval.

The county eventually would like to extend the runway from 4,900 to 5,900 feet to accommodate small commercial passenger jets. That has been estimated to cost $34 million if extended on the east end, an amount officials say is currently unrealistic.

Airlines serving McClellan-Palomar Airport operate mostly 25-to 30-passenger turboprop planes.

“We’re moving Palomar Airport toward the (future),” Drinkwater says. “In the end, it will be a much better place for everyone than it is today. We’ve got to modernize, to do the best with what we’ve got.”

Opened in 1959

The county bought the site for the airport in 1956 to help boost economic development in North County.

The 250-acre facility, north of Palomar Airport Road and west of El Camino Real, opened in 1959 as Palomar Airport, named after the mountain. An additional 237 acres east of El Camino Real belongs to the airport, but that land is scheduled to remain undeveloped for environmental mitigation use.

Gerald McClellan, an avid private pilot and Carlsbad community leader, was instrumental in having the airport built, and in 1982 his name was added to it.

The airport was initially used by about 40 private airplanes and one pioneer commercial carrier, Bonanza Airlines. Local flower growers were among the first businesses to use it, taking advantage of quick and convenient air delivery service to the East Coast. Soon, others caught on.

In 2002, the airport handled 204,155 flights, including commercial passenger flights by America West and United Express. Predictions are for nearly 260,000 flights by 2013.

The number of private planes based at McClellan-Palomar Airport has also grown, to about 400. Increasingly, these planes belong to big companies. FedEx, Legoland, Qualcomm, Callaway Golf, Nike, Upper Deck, Jenny Craig, local sports team owners and others own or lease jets that fly people and cargo in and out daily.

“Aircraft size, based on economics, is a changing business,” Drinkwater says. “You no longer have aircraft like you did in 1950, air coupes and such. Now it’s about worldwide travel with jets.”

Unhappy pilots

County officials say the airport upgrades will accommodate everyone, including the private pilots.

But dozens of general aviation pilots and small-business owners who use the old hangars say they’ll be forced out because the new, larger hangars will be too expensive to rent. Pilots who now pay about $400 a month to rent hangar space say they have been told new rental fees would start in the thousands.

The pilots say they are being disenfranchised, even though they account for the bulk of the air traffic. General aviation flights make up about 80 percent of operations at Palomar Airport, compared with corporate and charter jet flights, about 15 percent, and commercial flights, about 5 percent, says Best, the airports manager.

“Here are publicly owned facilities, and they’re building jet palaces where the price of admission is $10 million,” said Roger Baker, a retired airline captain who has rented a hangar for 30 years for his antique plane. “This airport is dead for us.”

Dan and Mary Older own Aviation Service Co., an airplane mechanic shop that could get priced out with the renovations. They use two hangars and six tie-down spots.

“This is our lives; this is what we know,” Mary Older says. “It’s bothering everybody because we are the airport. (Now) they want the corporate world. What are we going to do?”

The answers, county officials say, are to use a new tie-down area that is planned for general aviation or to move to a different county airport.

“Some say, ‘No way. As a kid I walked around here. No one’s going to make me move. I want my hangar for $300 a month,'” says Drinkwater, the county airports director. “But it’s not your hangar.”

Renting a hangar is more like renting a house, he says, and now the market has changed, and it’s time to move or pay a higher price to live there.

Noise fears

Though Drinkwater says the plans for refurbishing the airport have been presented in stages at Palomar Airport Advisory Committee meetings, some people who watch airport meetings because they are affected by the noise say they are unaware of any planned changes.

“I’m hoping they’ll be responsible,” says Anita Dwyer, who participated in a recent noise study meeting where about 50 people complained about hearing jets, helicopters and propeller-driven planes flying over their homes. Dwyer said the planes fly over her Leucadia home every day.

Dwyer says she likes the idea of a nicer airport but hopes it does not lead to more planes flying over her home.

County officials say there will be more chances to review plans to improve the airport at future meetings. The expected improvements are not included in one major project; they are a collection of private and public development plans. The county has assigned a project coordinator to McClellan-Palomar Airport to keep track of all the construction.

Many of the individual projects will require environmental and other approvals even if the FAA approves the blueprint of all the renovations.

Drinkwater says that at this point some of the plans are just a “wish list,” although several old hangars are already coming down at JetSource’s site – JetSource is a private airport leaseholder. And Magellan Aviation, another private leaseholder, plans to begin construction on new hangars by the fall.

Among the expected obstacles are environmental and community concerns, including a dearth of land left for growth because of all the development around the airport.

How the plans will be paid for is also unknown.

Private leaseholder Palomar Airport Center, which houses and services planes, had its conceptual project plans approved by the Board of Supervisors in January. Repeated attempts to contact Richard L. Sax, Palomar Airport Center president, for construction and costs details were unsuccessful. County figures show the restaurant building would cost $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, some business owners say they are being asked to submit nonrefundable deposits to Palomar Airport Center, some amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to guarantee a spot in the renovated facilities.

County budget figures for next year detail $2.1 million in capital improvements to the airport, including land acquisition for parking lots and some design work on the taxiway.

County officials say many of the remaining projects are not funded, including the runway extension on the east end of the airport; the first phase of a $4.2 million project to add tie-downs; a $1.4 million project to add three long-term parking lots; a $4 million project to build three terminals; and a $4 million project to build a larger apron and new taxiway for small commercial planes.