Constrained on all sides, the single-runway Lindbergh Field has seen passenger traffic grow to the point that it needs at least two more gates to handle it. In addition, traffic going into and out of the airport continues to create bottlenecks.
"We are already behind the eight ball. Today we're short by two gates," said Keith Wilschetz, director of airport planning for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, the agency that manages the downtown airport. "And every year we're going to be behind by another gate or two."
Displaying pictures of traffic jams at the airport's Terminal 2 taken in March, Wilschetz says that situation has likely gotten worse today because of the peak travel summer season.
Airport managers say a short-term remedy is to expand Terminal 2 or the farthest west terminal by 10 gates from its current total of 41.
The expansion plan that is still being examined also calls for constructing an elevated road to the terminal for easier traffic access, a possible five-story parking garage, and an overnight parking area for passenger jets that must be grounded to comply with a no-fly curfew from 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.
The latest cost estimate on the project is $650 million, Wilschetz said.
"These 10 gates would only meet the airport's immediate needs," said Thella Bowens, chief executive officer for the airport authority. "If we're going to be here for a long time, there's going to be some strategic decisions made."
Bowens is fully aware that Lindbergh Field will remain the region's primary airport for decades since area voters rejected a proposal, 62 percent to 38 percent, in November to convert part of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar's airfield to commercial use.
That vote prompted the airport authority to resume an overall master plan update that was put on hold while the agency concentrated on the site selection process for a new airport.
That process was undertaken because Lindbergh Field is on track to reach capacity sometime between 2015 and 2022, according to airport authority studies.
Airport authority board members say they are awaiting the results of a final environmental report that should be out by September before adopting the plan.
"It's not a done deal until we see the EIR (environmental impact report)," said Bruce Boland, one of nine members of the airport authority board of directors and a former Navy rear admiral.
Boland said now that it's clear Lindbergh Field is the area's main airport, the gate expansion is a must. "Those 10 gates are badly needed so we can continue to expand the air transportation service to our citizens," he said.
However, not everyone is convinced that the airport authority's plans are best for Lindbergh and the region.
Fourth District Supervisor Ron Roberts is adamantly opposed to the gate expansion project, saying the authority's immediate action plan makes no sense in light of the agency's earlier plans to build additional gates at the northeastern side of the airport.
More than 10 years ago, Roberts said the airport plans were to construct a mass transit center at Pacific Highway, along with ramps that would take traffic from Interstate 5 into the airport. Also, there were plans to acquire land from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot to enlarge the airport's taxiways, and possibly build another runway.
Roberts said he and other members of the San Diego Association of Governments' transportation committee will be taking a hard look at the airport's environmental report. Sandag is a regional planning agency.
"The history of this airport for the last couple of decades has always been to provide for its immediate needs, but enough is enough," he said. "This is some of the worst planning by any public agency I've ever seen."
Told of his comments, Boland said: "It is regrettable that Supervisor Roberts has not participated in any positive way in this first phase of the master planning. If he had he would see the clear benefit of the plan to the public traveling through Lindbergh Field."
Passenger Counts Soaring
As more carriers, particularly regional airlines such as ExpressJet and Frontier, provide direct service to certain cities, the airport has seen its passenger counts rise annually in the last four years. Last year, 17.5 million passengers flew from and into the airport, up only 0.6 percent from 2005. But that number was up 6.7 percent from 2004.
In the first half of 2007, more than 8.6 million passengers came through Lindbergh, with the heaviest travel months, July and August, still to be counted.
Airport managers are also intent on using 44 acres of land just east of the existing commuter terminal the agency will get that formerly belonged to Teledyne Ryan. This year, the authority has begun assessing the extent of the site's contamination in advance of cleaning it up. Teledyne Ryan used hazardous materials on the site during decades of aerospace manufacturing.
The gate expansion project was initially planned for the late 1990s when the airport expanded and improved Terminal 2, then called the West Terminal. At the time, the project included installing utilities and other infrastructure at the terminal that would permit adding a row of 10 new gates at a future date.
"The 10 additional gates would take care of our customers' needs through 2015 with a high level of service," said Wilschetz.
Besides the new gates, the project also aims to solve a problem related to parking jets north of the runway that are grounded here because of the curfew on airport operations.
Moving the jets each morning across the runway wastes time and fuel, and could be rectified if the parking area was on the west side of the airport, Wilschetz said.
Editor's Note: A quote responding to critical comments made by Supervisor Ron Roberts was made by San Diego County Regional Airport Authority board member Bruce Boland, not Chief Executive Officer Thella Bowens. This version of the story has been corrected.