San Diego–Airport Plan Built on Guesses

Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Airport plan built on guesses
The San Diego (CA) North County Times

It’s projected that Lindbergh Field will exceed runway capacity by 2012 and that a new airport will not be available for at least 10 years. So we face a crisis. Or do we? The 2012 projection is based on “business as usual,” but business as usual is unlikely for a variety of reasons. A major reason is oil production. Most oil geologists agree that, barring major new discoveries, annual production is at or near its peak and will probably be declining by 2012. The requisite discoveries are only likely to be found under polar ice that will still be around in 2012 even with global warming. Consequently prospecting and production in the Arctic would be quite expensive. Coupled with stability or decline in production will be a major increase in demand as other countries, notably China, industrialize. The inevitable result will be to drive up the cost of oil significantly.

Another reason is U.S. debt, which is more than $20,000 per person and will increase in the near term. Inflation is traditionally the way debt is dealt with, so we can expect to see the dollar continue to decline against the euro and yen.

Other reasons include the accuracy of population projections, especially the higher income populations, the possibility of long-term negative reaction to flying because of airport security, and the possibility of base closings due to a pendulum swing against a large military after Iraq. Since these are more speculative, I’ll ignore them.

What are the likely results? While some industries can cut back on oil usage and more fuel-efficient cars will be available, it is hard to see how airlines can become more fuel-efficient except by ensuring that flights are completely full. In addition they will undoubtedly raise prices and may cut back on frequent-flier miles and usage. Coupled with the decline of the dollar, this will reduce tourist travel. Higher prices and improved telecommunications will probably reduce business travel. Of course both effects will be offset by a population increase in San Diego, but probably not to the extent predicted. It is possible that domestic tourism may increase in San Diego, but more of these tourists may select alternative means of transportation.

While the devaluation of the dollar will make the United States more attractive to foreign tourists, that will be offset by increased travel costs (and, possibly, airport security). While foreign tourism may increase in Hawaii and the East Coast, it could actually decline in San Diego.

Since the expense of airline travel can be expected to increase beyond 2012, we may well see a time when runway usage is less than it is at the present time and San Diego has a large, underused airport that is less conveniently located than Lindbergh Field. We might even close the new airport to passenger travel and return to Lindbergh!

Carlsbad resident Ed Bender has been on the UC San Diego faculty since 1974. His textbooks include one on the use of mathematics to model real-world situations.