Airport Naysayers Jeopardize San Diego's Future

Saturday, January 7, 2005
Airport Naysayers Jeopardize San Diego’s Future
The San Diego (CA) North County Times

Opponents of a new San Diego County airport are trying a new tack. Now they claim that projections of robust demand for air travel in the region are based on wishful thinking and are grossly inflated. For them, local air travel will not grow and may even decline over the next 20 years. Thus, not only is a new airport not needed, but cozy Lindbergh Field may require only modest, if any, improvements. Yet it is the naysayers who are masters of ill-informed guesswork. Unfortunately, if San Diego County voters buy their specious arguments when deciding in 2006 whether to build a new airport, the future prosperity and quality of life of our region will be severely jeopardized.

Their no-growth arguments are dangerously flawed.

First, they claim that rising fuel costs will drive up airfares and reduce air travel. While today’s jet fuel costs are at an all-time high, low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines have found ways to increase efficiency. Legacy carriers will be forced to do the same or be merged with more profitable airlines. As fuel costs rise, airlines seek more fuel-efficient airplanes, which now are being planned and built.

Second, airport critics argue that the telecommunications revolution, with San Diego County at the forefront, reduces the need for business travel. Tellingly, this dip has not occurred, even with the advent of video conferencing and the Internet. Surveys show that business travel is as important today as it was 10 years ago.

New technology does not change the fact that business is profoundly personal. Doing deals, making significant (especially first-time) sales, and handling customer service depend upon face-to-face interaction. High-tech industries exhibit the highest air travel and air cargo generation rates.

And cutting-edge science, upon which this region’s future depends, also requires face-to-face exchanges. Scientific conferences will not be replaced by electronic teleconferencing.

Third, the naysayers point to post-9-11 security delays as dampening air travel. While the post-9-11 decline was a reality, so was the return to pre-9-11 levels of air travel. In fact, San Diego County was one of the first regions to see its air travel return to (and exceed) pre-9-11 levels. While grumbling, passengers have adjusted to new airport security procedures.

Why are the naysayers wrong? First, a long-term sustained drop in air travel for any reason is highly unlikely. Even the post-9-11 decline in air travel, exacerbated by recession, was short-lived. Today, airports around the country report air passenger and cargo traffic above pre-9-11 levels. Second, two key factors —- the economy and population trends —- are potent drivers of air travel and cargo demand.

Whither goest the economy, so goest air travel. If the economy grows, so will demand for air travel and air cargo. The national economy shows remarkable resiliency and a long-term trend of steady growth. So does the San Diego regional economy, which in recent years has outperformed the state and national economies. And the county’s population in the next 20 years is projected to grow by nearly 1 million people, substantially driving up air travel demand.

Three economic and population trends merit special attention in terms of understanding San Diego’s growing (not shrinking) airport needs.

First, globally competitive high-tech industries depend upon gateway airports. San Diego’s advanced technology industries require direct global connections. These are high-wage and high value-added industries, critical to our regional prosperity and quality of life.

Today, these industries include biotech and telecommunications. Tomorrow, they will include stem-cell research, nanotechnology and human genome work. The domain of science and technology is truly global. The demand for transportation as well as electronic connectivity will grow as well.

Second, economic prosperity in the Asian Pacific region, particularly China, is driving international tourism to new levels in Southern California. San Diego stands out as a particularly desirable resort destination.

However, with our current airport deficiencies, few international travelers can fly here directly. Arriving at LAX, many global tourists spend much of their stay in Los Angeles rather than in San Diego. With better airport facilities and more direct flights from Asia, San Diego’s tourist industry would profit from greater tourism, longer stays and greater spending.

Third, the nation’s and region’s populations are aging. Aging baby boomers will have both discretionary income and time. This translates into greater tourist and personal air passenger travel, both into and out of San Diego.

San Diego County needs a new airport now. Today, up to one-third of the region’s air passengers and three-quarters of our locally generated air cargo goes out of non-San Diego airports, primarily LAX and Ontario international airports.

As a result, our region currently loses more than $6 billion annually in regional economic activity because of our airport deficiencies. Lindbergh Field could experience runway congestion and delays by 2015.?Yet it takes 10 to 15 years or more to plan and build a new airport. Without a new international airport, these economic losses and opportunity costs will multiply from $6 billion today to more than $90 billion in 20 years.

We truly are at a crossroads in terms of this region’s future. Planning for a new airport must not be delayed. Either we build a new airport with all due haste, or the regional economy and quality of life will suffer as a result. As James A. Wilding, former chief executive of the Washington Airports Authority, recently told a local audience, San Diego “must do something or be at very serious risk.” The naysayers are indeed putting us at risk, thereby jeopardizing our future and that of our children.

Steven P. Erie is a professor of political science at UC San Diego and an authority on the region’s infrastructure. He is the author of numerous Southern California airport studies, and he served on the Governor’s Commission on Building for the 21st Century.