County officials are considering a 20-year master plan for improvements to McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, which has recently seen the exit and arrival of various air carrier service providers.

County officials are considering a 20-year master plan for improvements to McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, which has recently seen the exit and arrival of various air carrier service providers. Photo by County of San Diego

McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad recently saw the permanent departure of United Express, but is now awaiting the June arrival of a relatively new carrier known as BizAir Shuttle, which plans to provide regional charter service to Los Angeles.

The changes come as operators of the county-owned airport are weighing elements of a 20-year master plan intended to accommodate rising demand for regional services using larger planes, while addressing local residents’ concerns about the potential impacts of future growth at the airport.

“We need to find that sweet spot between what the facility requires currently and in the future, and what the public wants and needs,” said Peter Drinkwater, director of airports for the county of San Diego.

McClellan-Palomar is the second-largest by acreage among eight small regional airports overseen by the county, and the only facility outside of San Diego International Airport able to handle commercial passenger services in the local market.

In April, the Carlsbad airport lost its only major-carrier commercial service when Utah-based SkyWest Airlines discontinued its local flights to Los Angeles International Airport, which operated as United Express through arrangements with United Airlines. The move came as SkyWest shifts systemwide to a new fleet of jets requiring a runway that is longer than the one now available at McClellan-Palomar.

“At the Carlsbad airport, we just weren’t able to bring in new aircraft,” said SkyWest spokesman Wes Horrocks, adding that the carrier will maintain its existing regional operations at San Diego International.

San Diego County supervisors in the past have discussed a proposed $95 million runway expansion that would add 900 feet to the Carlsbad airport’s current 4,897-square-foot runway. Officials have said the extension needs to be considered as the airport sees rising industry demand for use of aircraft with wingspans and approach speeds requiring larger runways.

Consultants hired by supervisors said in 2013 that McClellan-Palomar, located at 2192 Palomar Airport Road, currently generates about $300 million in direct annual economic impact for the North County region, and that a 900-foot runway extension could spur another $163 million.

Over the years, residents living near the airport have expressed concerns that allowing for larger planes and expanded services will bring noise and other unwanted impacts. However, Drinkwater said a runway extension is “not a given” as the county puts together a long-term master plan taking in the airport’s needs through the year 2035.

County officials and consultants recently held the third in a series of public workshops designed to gather community feedback, with a fourth slated for this fall. Drinkwater said officials are —required to obtain future state and federal grants for airport improvements — and a master plan could be finalized by the end of 2016.

In the meantime, Drinkwater said the exit of United Express could clear the way for other types of carriers to provide regional services from the Carlsbad airport. In late 2014, private-membership airline Surf Air of Santa Monica began offering services from McClellan-Palomar, with access to other small airports in markets including Santa Barbara and Oakland.

Around mid-June, Chicago-based charter carrier BizAir Shuttle plans to begin service between Carlsbad and LAX, starting with three daily flights and expected to expand to seven. The carrier plans to use small regional jets with a capacity of 30 to 50 passengers.

“We’ve applied to eventually serve Las Vegas and Phoenix from Carlsbad,” said Ricardo Gomez, director of operations and development at BizAir Shuttle.

BizAir Shuttle is a relatively new carrier that in the past few years has established similar regional charter services from small airports in the Chicago and Dallas markets, and it serves a few Mexican destinations from its Texas operations.

Still uncertain is the fate of locally based California Pacific Airlines, which was launched in 2010 by entrepreneur Ted Vallas. The company has faced a series of delays in obtaining federal certification to begin operating regional commercial services from Carlsbad to planned destinations including San Jose, Las Vegas, Phoenix and eventually Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Delays have been attributed to factors including staffing shortages at the Federal Aviation Administration, and the agency’s rejection of past applications due to deficiencies in information supplied by the company.

On April 24, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an order revoking certificate authority which had previously been issued to California Pacific, and which is required in order for the carrier to offer interstate service.

According to the order, DOT approval first issued in 2011 was conditioned on California Pacific obtaining necessary FAA approvals and liability insurance coverage, and submitting updated “fitness information” to DOT. The department granted extensions on the interstate certificate in 2012 and 2013, and the latest extension expired in November 2014.

DOT received no further extension requests from the carrier and decided in April to revoke its certificate authority, effective immediately. Officials said California Pacific can re-apply in the future for a new interstate authorization.

California Pacific Airlines officials could not be reached for comment on the company’s situation.