San Diego Needs an Airport to Compete Globally

Monday, May 30, 2005
San Diego Needs an Airport to Compete Globally, Experts Say
CalTrade Report

SAN DIEGO – San Diego could take advantage of a world of trade opportunities, if only it had the proper airport, according to participants at the recent TradeVisions Conference. “Build a better mousetrap and the world of the 21st century won’t beat a path to your door – unless there’s an 11,000-foot runway or a deep-water port in your front yard,” said Jock O’Connell of Sacramento-based ClarkStreet Group at the conference, which was sponsored by the San Diego World Trade Center and reported-on by the San Diego Daily Transcript.

The San Diego region has neither the 11,000-foot civilian runway – the Lindbergh Field runway is 9,401 feet long – nor the deep-water port.

Steve Erie, director of University of California, San Diego’s Urban Studies Program, said San Diego missed a golden opportunity when it let the Marines move into Miramar when the Navy left.

“If we had gotten our act together we could have done this … It was felony dumb,” he said.

Erie said San Diego began to fall behind when Los Angeles moved to create the Alameda Rail Corridor, which runs from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach 20 miles north to downtown Los Angeles. While that network of rail lines and roads cost $2.4 billion to construct, it is expected to facilitate the handling of billions of dollars more in commerce each year.

“They overbuilt it, and it showed great leadership that started with Tom Bradley,” said Erie.

O’Connell noted how San Diego has long relied on Los Angeles for its air and sea links to overseas markets.

“That de facto strategy may have been satisfactory in the past. It certainly permitted San Diego to avoid much of the downside of being a major corridor of global trade,” said O’Connell.

O’Connell warned, however, that as the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles – not to mention Los Angeles International airport – grow more congested, and as the surface routes between San Diego and Los Angeles become less reliable, that old strategy is growing tenuous.

In Southern California, the migration will most likely benefit Ontario International and March GlobalPort. These airports are situated in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, respectively, two of the fastest growing counties in California. The airports also happen to be regional hubs for UPS and DHL.

Surplus cargoes head to March GlobalPort, Ontario and the old Norton Air Force Base in the Inland Empire, but goods could have to be transported from much further away if these facilities also become overwhelmed.

“Will the day come when you have to truck your overseas air freight all the way up to Palmdale?” said O’Connell. “And what will happen with the LAX Master Plan now that Antonio Villaraigosa – a confirmed opponent of airport expansion – has been elected mayor of Los Angeles?”

Villaraigosa’s reticence to expand LAX could be beneficial to other airports in the region, said William Capone, account manager for the worldwide firm of SkyTeam Cargo. But unlike Lindbergh, airports like March and Ontario will have plenty of capacity.

“L.A. is going to be the big loser in this, and the business is going to be taken by somebody,” Capone said.

Capone said one area where LAX needs help is in the importation of perishable items.

San Diego handles a variety of such perishables via the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal, but might be able to handle a sizable percentage more if it had greater air cargo capacity at Lindbergh.

These issues could present opportunities for San Diego, but O’Connell doesn’t pretend it would be easy.

“Despite being California’s second largest city, San Diego will have to resolve a long-standing controversy over if and where to build a major new airport before it is positioned to compete for an appreciable volume of international air cargo traffic,” said O’Connell.

For a time in the 1990s it appeared that such a facility might be built at Brown Field, but area residents and homebuilders shot down the plan.

Air cargo traffic barely registers in San Diego Custom’s district, with about 1% of the import and export total. While we export automobiles through the National City Marine Terminal, water transportation doesn’t appear to be a sizable percentage on the export side.

On the import side, about 20% of transport is on the water; land transport makes up nearly 80% of import total.

By contrast, about 35% of exports leaving the Los Angeles Customs district go by water, and 63% goes by air, while just 2% goes over land.

On the import side, about 62% comes by water and all but a tiny fraction of the rest comes by air.

David Wirsing, Airforwarders Association executive director, said ports that ignore the air cargo potential do so at their own peril.

“One of our major West Coast airports (Lindbergh Field) has been remiss in its efforts at understanding the positive financial impact cargo has had on their business,” said Wirsing.

The region’s leaders have overlooked the need to provide proper facilities and infrastructure for cargo, “and the result is a missed opportunity for their community,” he said.

“San Diego and other ports must take a lesson from some of their brethren who realize the ‘total distribution center’ concept is effective outside-the-box thinking in this new era,” said Wirsing.

The failure to create these distribution networks would result in the shift of traffic to other ports, traffic disruptions, loss of jobs, increased taxes and ultimately, bankruptcies, he said.

A classic of example of what an air cargo hub should be is Ontario, according to Wirsing, who noted that it is not only a passenger and cargo airport but a multimodal facility that provides easy access to other forms of transportation such as truck and rail traffic.

“You can expect to see a certain amount of cargo drain from Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego when the facility begins operating next year,” said Wirsing.