HE IS OFFERING his backyard, in Mexico. His idea is simply to put San Diego’s next airport literally on the spot where California meets the Mexican state of Baja California, some 20 miles southeast of San Diego’s tiny Lindbergh Field. It is being taken seriously on both sides of the border.
In effect, Mr. Nieders is proposing North America’s first truly “international” airport, a facility shared by the U.S. and Mexico. U.S. airlines would relocate into new terminals on the California side of the site, alongside new restaurants and rental-car counters; Mexican airlines and services would stay put on the Mexico side. The airport’s runways, maintenance hangars and fuel storage tanks — and the clutter and the noise — also would remain in Mexico.
Understandably, San Diego officials like these features and so are considering Tijuana among possible airport sites. “We all know Lindbergh Field can’t handle the traffic,” says Michael Hix, senior transportation planner for Sandag, the city’s association of county and municipal governments. The airport “makes a lot of sense.”
Ernesto Ruffo, Mexican President Vicente Fox’s newly appointed “border czar,” says Mr. Nieders’s plan for a binational airport plan is a top priority. In addition to the noise, Mexico stands to reap a windfall of at least $100 million in annual runway and scheduling fees from Mexican and U.S. airlines, a sum it could never hope to earn serving Tijuana alone.
Costing between $50 million and $100 million to cover land, access roads and the terminal itself, the binational airport would be a bargain compared with other airports’ billion-dollar price tags. The reason it is possible is that the Mexican half is already in place. Tijuana’s General Abelardo Rodriguez International Airport — Mexico’s fourth largest, with 3.5 million passengers annually, most of them U.S.-bound — lies just 10 yards from the U.S.-Mexico line. Its main runway runs along 2,000 feet of border fence.
Mr. Nieders, a 47-year-old architect and son of a Norwegian immigrant to Mexico, powers up a computer-generated version of his cross-border vision. Satellite-view photos and artists’ renderings reveal a new terminal whose chief function would be to funnel U.S. passengers briefly into Mexico to board planes sitting on runways there. Ticket counters, baggage handling and security for U.S. passengers would stay in the U.S. A pedestrian bridge, accessible only to ticketed passengers, would take them via moving sidewalk over the border.
The two governments would probably insist on putting a combined immigration-customs checkpoint on the bridge, to handle passengers traveling on domestic U.S. flights. International passengers would continue to pass through immigration and customs posts just as they do now. As for control of contraband and illegal immigrants, Mr. Nieders says the border crossing would be entirely indoors and as easy to police as that at any international airport where passengers change planes.
Mr. Nieders consults with the managers of Tijuana’s airport, Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico SA, the Spanish-run consortium that won a 25-year concession to operate Mexico’s western airports in a 1999 privatization. The Spaniards thought enough of Mr. Nieders’s plan that they made him their point man for marketing.
Lindbergh Field itself is probably the best argument for a border airport. Passengers last year numbered 16 million, more than five times the Tijuana airport’s traffic. Virtually within walking distance of downtown San Diego, the once-remote airfield has been swallowed by an expanding city.
Opened the year after Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1928, Lindbergh Field sits on a 500-acre pocket of land, hemmed in by a Navy base on one side and some of the West Coast’s priciest homes on the others. Its single runway is too short for the latest generation of jumbo jets. Its two parking lots are so cramped that visitors arriving after 9 a.m. often find that the spaces are all taken.
San Diego planners have been searching for a decade for a new airport location within county limits. Community activists have lobbied to keep it away from the wealthy neighborhoods of Mission Hills and La Jolla. Two other possible sites — the old U.S. Navy air station at Miramar and land adjacent to the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton — share a different obstacle: more than 10,000 rounds of unexploded shells lying just below ground level, a dangerous and expensive problem to remove.
Mexican officials have proposed letting California use their airspace before, but the idea languished amid anti-immigrant sentiment. Then the 1994 peso collapse put most border infrastructure plans on hold. Since then, commerce between the Californias has surged to $20 billion a year under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Businesses on both sides are clamoring for more air-cargo capacity.
Mr. Nieders’s binational terminal leaves much of the revenue-generating potential in the U.S. The more lucrative parking, restaurants, car-rental agencies and shops would be in San Diego — activity that could raise an estimated $25 million in payroll, property and sales taxes annually for the city, according to forecasts by San Diego’s port authority.
Mexico has something else San Diego needs: unused landing rights for Asian carriers arriving from across the Pacific. Those rights would entitle U.S. flights departing from a border airport to land in Tokyo, Seoul, South Korea, and Taipei, Taiwan — something they can’t do now from Lindbergh Field’s short runway.
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The Asian flights sound good to me!!!!!!!
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