It’s not every day that you get to walk into a brand new, empty airport terminal, but I got a recent tour of the San Bernardino International Airport.
Last month, San Bernardino officials showed off the airport's new international arrivals terminal. It represents the last phase of a $200 million effort to convert the former Norton Air Force Base into a regional airport that commercial airlines can use. The problem so far: commercial airlines haven't shown up to use it.
A.J. Wilson, the airport's Executive Director showed me the new international arrivals terminal. It only has one jetway, but it's a three-story building with plenty of customs booths and office space for agricultural inspections and passenger interviews.
The domestic terminal right next door has just four gates, plus ticketing kiosks, food court space and a baggage handling system. The domestic terminal has been done for about three years, but it's also empty and inactive. Wilson figures it’s ready for 24 commercial flights a day, but where are those flights going to come from?
"We’ve seen some real interest," Wilson said. "But this industry is slowly recovering from the economic problems of the last five years, and it’s going to have to get stronger or we’re going to have to find that niche airline that wants to provide some kind of special service."
Wilson said the airport has had serious conversations with about nine airlines, though he wouldn’t name them. His examples of niche airlines are Allegiant or Spirit Air. Airport backers like San Bernardino’s new Mayor Carey Davis say the international flight opportunities would come from south of the border.
"A very large segment of our population has roots and ties to south America, and so this is a natural jumping off point for them to be able to fly in and out of San Bernardino," Davis said.
Airport employee Jerry Stiff has refueled and towed jets around the airfield for 15 years. He’s seen a lot of change around the place, but he said commercial airline traffic would be huge.
"With the money that they’re spending on this place, it must be coming," Stiff said of commercial traffic. "I hope it will because if we get more air craft in here it means we can get more jobs, more money for the economy, for this area. This area has been hurting since the Air Force pulled out."
Future asset or foolish boondoggle?
Norton Air Force Base officially closed on the site 10 years ago. The effort to convert the base into a regional airport has drawn on federal, state, and local tax dollars - and has been turbulent. Nearly three years ago, the FBI served warrants on the airport authority over questionable finances and raided the offices of the airport’s developer Scot Spencer. Spencer was arrested last year on charges of defrauding the airport authority.
"It’s a $200 million boondoggle, which is not likely to create jobs now or in the future," said former San Bernardino City Councilman and County Supervisor Neil Derry in an interview with KPCC. Local officials, said Derry, saw business booming ten years ago at nearby Ontario International Airport and believed a San Bernardino airport could compete.
"The idea that we (San Bernardino), with one runway, could compete with Ontario, which is right down the road, has direct freeway access, is easy to get to when San Bernardino Airport is difficult to get to, the idea that we could compete with them borderlines on lunacy," Derry said. "I don’t even think twenty or thirty years from now that it will be operating as an airport."
Transportation officials like Ray Wolfe believe the region will eventually need an airport like San Bernardino. Wolfe runs the San Bernardino Associated Governments, which manages a sales tax measure designed to fund transportation improvements. He cites projections from the Southern California Association of Governments that the region will see nearly 146 million air passengers a year by 2035.
"That’s more than LAX , Burbank, Orange County, or Ontario could handle," Wolfe said. "We need to invest in assets that disperse demand."
Aviation consultant Jack Keady calls the projection conjecture.
"Considering that LAX is lucky to have 65 to 70 million passengers a year, and that is an absolute colossus, one wonders where they’re going to get that many people," Keady said.
Keady said Los Angeles International Airport and all the commercial airports in the region are fighting for airline passengers. San Bernardino’s airport is 22 miles from Ontario’s. Since plane boardings at Ontario have been declining, Keady compares San Bernardino to an 'airfield of dreams'.
"This does seem to be a situation of build it and they will come, except they built it and they haven’t come," Keady said.
San Bernardino Airport Executive Director A.J. Wilson said even though airlines haven’t come yet, money has. The airport offers services like aircraft refueling, maintenance and repair, and painting. There’s some private jet and charter traffic, and some test flights from Boeing. Soon, the County Sheriff’s Department will keep its planes at the San Bernardino airport.
"It’s been unfortunately a false measurement of this airport to say that if you don’t get [commercial passenger] service, you can’t survive," Wilson said. "We are paying our bills right now with the operations that we have."
Nevertheless, the San Bernardino International Airport is built, and Wilson hopes the airlines will come.