Earlier this year, a three-year court battle over the North County commuter airport’s future came to an end and next month (Nov. 3), supervisors are expected to approve the latest master plan update, which was last revised in 1997.
Board approval should pave the way for a long-awaited runway extension and other crucial safety upgrades at the facility.
Supervisors ordered an update for the McClellan-Palomar Airport Master Plan in 2015.
In 2018, after an extensive three-year process that included public and stakeholder involvement, the board officially approved the final document – and certified its accompanying Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR). All of the proposed improvements recommended in the update were within the airport’s current boundaries, including a runway extension of up to 800 feet.
But shortly after supervisors OK’d the update, a group called Citizens for a Friendly Airport filed a lawsuit alleging San Diego County wasn’t properly monitoring jet noise at McClellan-Palomar – which they argued, and a judge agreed, caused the update’s PEIR to be flawed.
That put the project in limbo for three years – and forced supervisors to rescind their approval of the 2018 master plan update earlier this year.
But staff revisions of the PEIR and an August 2021 field study concluding “no significant noise impacts would occur” with proposed improvements appear to have the master plan update effort back on track.
Air Traffic Peaks in 2000
McClellan-Palomar Airport opened in 1959, years before surrounding residential communities were developed.
The 466-acre facility, which was annexed into Carlsbad in 1978, is owned and operated by San Diego County – named in honor of Gerald McClellan, a pioneering North County aviator and civic leader. The airport’s FAA flight code is CLD.
According to a recent County-authored report, McClellan-Palomar Airport supports 2,590 local jobs and generated $72 million in tax revenues and $461 million in economy activity in 2019.
The airport currently sees about 12,000 takeoffs and landings per month, according to Humphres. “Aircraft activity has remained relatively steady since 2010,” he added.
CLD recorded its busiest year on record in 1999, logging about 23,750 operations per month. During that period, commercial flights from Carlsbad to both Los Angeles and Phoenix carried nearly 80,000 passengers annually.
Today, about 300 aircraft are based at the facility. “Palomar has a single 4,897-foot runway. Within the contiguous United States, there are no airports with runways less than 5,000 feet that offer commercial air service,” Humphres said.
So, to make up for the 103-foot shortfall at CLD, some operators have to reduce their aircraft’s weight – “in fuel, passengers and cargo,” Humphres explained.
The master plan update recommends extending the runway to 5,697 feet.
“Even with these improvements, it would be extremely difficult for larger commercial airlines like the Boeing 737 to use Palomar due to the runway length, weight-bearing capacity of the pavements, size of the aircraft parking areas and the passenger terminal capacity,” Humphres said. (In 2009, the airport opened a brand new $24-million, 18,000-square-foot passenger terminal.)
Only Commercial Carrier
Humphres said there is “strong” demand for commercial air service in North County. “A recent study determined 14,000 total passengers travel per day that reside or are visiting a destination within 15 miles of Palomar.”
Over the past 20 years, a handful of commercial carriers, including United, Cal Jet and California Pacific Airlines, have come and gone from CLD.
Taos Air is the latest carrier to operate out of the airport. According to numbers provided by the county, the New Mexico-based airline has been shuttling 400 to 600 passengers a year in and out of Carlsbad since limited flights began in 2019.
Owned by the Taos Ski Valley, Taos Air flies 30-seat Dornier 328 aircrafts from Taos Regional Airport twice weekly to CLD between July and October – and three times a week between December and April. Fares start at $180 one way.
With the new master plan update in place – and a longer, stronger runway – additional commercial airline activity could rev up again at CLD – and business leaders in Carlsbad and surrounding communities can’t wait.
“The McClellan-Palomar Airport is a regional asset to North County,” said Bret Schanzenbach, president and CEO of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce. “Getting the master plan updated will create not only a safer airport with needed safety upgrades, it will also allow for our current airplanes to carry more fuel, thus travel to more destinations.”
An updated master plan “will help to bring commercial service back to the airport, which both the residents and businesses will utilize,” Schanzenbach said. “The airport is a major economic driver. Our region needs this.”
Other North County business leaders agree.
“Palomar is a critical asset for North County economic competitiveness,” said Erik Bruvold, CEO of the San Diego North Economic Development Council. “The airport supports corporate travel and is a key amenity for companies in the Carlsbad Business Park.”