Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Discussions on commercial service at French Valley Airport take off
By NICOLE SACK
The San Diego (CA) North County Times
FRENCH VALLEY —- Bringing commercial air travel to French Valley Airport should be a top priority, say the mayors of Temecula and Murrieta, as it could be a boon to tourism and economic development. While the notion of bringing a passenger service to Southwest County may be desired by city leaders, county officials say it won’t likely happen anytime soon. French Valley Airport has been in operation for 16 years and approximately 105,000 takeoffs and landings take place there each year. In a meeting last week, the mayors of Temecula and Murrieta opened a discussion on expanding operations at the airport that now serves primarily private and corporate planes. Temecula Mayor Chuck Washington said that, as the population of Southwest County continues to climb, the area may be primed for regional jet service to connect passengers to major airports in Ontario, San Diego, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas or Phoenix.
“This could be a tool in our belt that would serve economic development of the region,” Washington said Monday. “There are a lot more dollars in tourism available if we can take care of one of the chief complaints we hear from visitors: It’s difficult to get here.
“Not only that, we hear concerns from our corporate community members, who have trouble getting their people in and out of the area to conduct business.”
Murrieta Mayor Doug McAllister said the intent is not to build an international, high volume airport in French Valley, but to create a new route into the region that could help foster economic development of Murrieta. He said the two cities could join forces to lobby for commercial service at the airport.
“When we say ‘commercial service,’ we mean passenger service —- not an air bus,” McAllister said Monday. “This is a form of economic development that continues beyond the building out of a city. A viable airport is critical to keeping the ‘twin cities’ open to prospective businesses and nurturing existing ones.”
McAllister said the need for commercial flights is compounded by congestion on Interstates 15 and 215.
“With our freeway situation, even getting to Ontario can be iffy,” he said. “Having this airport in our backyard and not using it as a tool doesn’t make sense.”
The airport, which is located just beyond the borders of the two cities, is operated by the Riverside County Economic Development Agency.
Agency Deputy Director Colby Cataldi said bringing commercial service to French Valley Airport won’t happen overnight. He said the airport would have to seek a different Federal Aviation Administration license for passenger traffic and the airport would have to comply with federal security guidelines, which would change the nature of the airport.
In addition, he questioned if it would be cost-effective to have small connection flights since the airport cannot support larger, heavier commercial planes. The airport’s runway can accommodate planes up to the size of a Gulfstream II, a small corporate jet.
“Some people might find it is not affordable,” Cataldi said. “The smaller the jet, the fewer the passengers, the higher the rates.”
Washington, who worked in the aviation industry for 30 years and is a retired captain for Delta Airlines, said commercial service could begin slowly at French Valley with three or five flights a week and those planes could operate relatively quietly. He compared French Valley Airport to similarly sized facilities in Carlsbad and Santa Barbara that have thrived with connection services.
And as for the changes to the airport that would allow it to function as a commercial operation, Washington suggested “better fencing, controlled entry and exit points, and beefed up weight capacity of the runway. It can be done.”
Cataldi said there could be an opportunity for the county to reassess the airport as the county Board of Supervisors decides whether to go forward with a French Valley Airport Master Plan within the next month. The master plan would help to determine if a second runway is needed, if an air traffic control tower should be built and if commercial service can be supported.
“The master plan will help us see what the airport is going to look like in the future,” Cataldi said.
There hasn’t been an update to the master plan since the airport was built and the update process would take up to a year to complete, he said.
Cataldi said outside pressure exists from residents who live near the airport to keep the services at French Valley Airport from expanding, as there are already resident watchdog groups who monitor the noise and traffic patterns from planes that use the airport.
“Yes, we would anticipate resistance from nearby residents, and it is already there,” he said.
Washington said that, while airport talk may be politically uncomfortable for some elected officials and their constituents, there is no sense ignoring the airport’s potential.
“I understand there are certain perceptions that airports bring to mind, but there are ways to make this work,” Washington said. “It does us no good to ignore a resource like this.”