The Folly of San Bernardino International Airport (Part 1)

Cardinal, Guest Posts, SBD - San Bernardino

Long time readers of the blog may remember reading guests posts written by The Cardinal. He has a long history in the airline industry and has always remained anonymous here, but his guest posts stopped back in 2011. I’m happy to report that The Cardinal is back, and I have a two-parter for you. Today he looks at the bizarre history of San Bernardino International Airport. Tomorrow he identifies the current problems and ponders what can be done to fix them.

Riverside and San Bernardino Counties comprise California’s Inland Empire, two giant inland counties behind Los Angeles and Orange County on the coast. San Bernardino County is physically enormous, twice the area of the next largest US county, larger than nine US states and many countries (e.g. Switzerland or the Netherlands). Riverside is smaller, but still the sixth largest by area in the US. If you’ve ever driven from LA to Vegas, almost 200 miles of the trip is in San Bernardino County, from the time you leave LA County near Pomona, up the Cajon Pass, through desert cities like Victorville, Barstow and Baker, and until you come down the hill to Primm, Nevada.

Both counties extend over vast stretches of desert to the Arizona border, but near Los Angeles they are densely populated with 2.5 mm people in Riverside and 2.2mm in San Bernardino. That makes them the 10th and 14th largest counties in the US by population. Each county lies in the LA Combined Statistical Area (CSA) — the broadest view of metro area by the US Census Bureau which also incorporates Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura Counties — comprising almost 19mm people, the second largest in the US after the New York CSA. Despite their heft, the Inland Empire counties are relatively poor compared to their coastal counterparts in the LA CSA.

Despite its over 4.6mm people, the Inland Empire has only two airports with commercial service – Ontario (ONT) and Palm Springs (PSP). PSP is in the Coachella Valley which has as many as 0.5mm people located outside the LA Basin. So over 4mm people in the Inland Empire use ONT for air service – or drive, as many do, an hour or two or more (depending on traffic) to coastal LA-area airports like LA Intl (LAX) or Orange County (SNA). It’s not hard to make the case that the Inland Empire is starved for air service. ONT passengers in 2018 were down substantially relative to 1998, despite 30%+ Inland Empire population growth over the same period.

A complete Inland Empire passenger terminal, unwanted, unused – why?

Against this backdrop, consider San Bernardino International Airport (SBD), located in the city of San Bernardino towards the back of the LA Basin. SBD is the former Norton AFB (many US soldiers departed to Vietnam from Norton) and holds certification from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to operate as a commercial passenger airport.

If you zoom Google Maps satellite view to the northeast corner of SBD, you will find, baking in the sun, a passenger terminal complex, with check-in desks, baggage systems and jetway gates on a second floor, up escalators. There are 2,500 parking spaces. There are elaborate driveways in-and-out of the terminal, ample space to pick up and let-down passengers from cars and buses. It’s all empty and has been since it was completed in 2011. Don’t forget the separate one-gate international terminal. Over $100mm was spent on this vacant complex. Why is it there and why is no airline interested?

A bizarre development process

As a former military base, SBD had Federal money to convert it to civilian purposes. In the mid 2000s, the agencies in charge, the SBIAA (San Bernardino Intl Airport Authority) and the IVDA (Inland Valley Development Agency), got into bed with a man named Scot Spencer. Scot Spencer is a convicted felon, who spent years in Federal prison for bankruptcy fraud connected to the third incarnation of Braniff. The Federal trial judge not only found him criminal but also incompetent. There’s more. After serving his time he tried selling charter flights and was lifetime banned from operating an airline after the US Dept of Transportation determined he was offering such services without proper authority. For good measure they fined him $1mm. Articles paint Spencer as inept and unqualified, but with a serious attraction to aviation. It’s like an airline nerd went to extreme, even criminal, lengths to get and stay in aviation rather than cope with their addiction by participating in the civil aviation forum.

Spencer was the man entrusted by SBIAA/IVDA with developing a commercial terminal and other facilities at SBD. Why Spencer? Well, the airport noted that while the DOT banned him from operating an airline, he was not banned from operating or developing an airport. And Scot promised what others would not – that such a terminal would land commercial service. And he offered to do the job cheap. The estimate was $104mm. He offered to do it for $38mm. Of course, by the time he was done, it actually cost over $100mm, but that was to come.

Reading reports about the debacle, you get the sense SBD and Spencer were made for each other. Scot painted a rosy vision of SBD success (almost a million enplanements by 2009!) and the SBIAA really wanted to believe. In return, SBIAA gave Scot what he wanted – a chance to be a commercial aviation player. Despite no relevant experience, he got to develop a commercial terminal, with all the trimmings. Over time, the SBIAA gave Spencer the keys to the kingdom through a series of no-bid contracts to develop an FBO (and sell the jet fuel at the airport) and even, ultimately, to run the airport. Oversight was minimal, and serial cost increases covered without pushback.

Ultimately, it all came crashing down. The incongruity of Spencer’s increasing power on top of overspending resulted in a grand jury investigation, out of which came a damning 2011 audit report flaying Spencer and IVDA/SBIAA. Later that year, the FBI raided the airport and Spencer’s home. SBIAA management was changed out, and Spencer was ejected from his roles. In 2013, Scot Spencer was indicted by the Feds for activities at SBD.

The wheels of justice turn slowly but in this case without result. In 2018, Spencer’s charges were almost completely dropped. No one went to jail or was fined or otherwise faced criminal sanction, other than having to endure a long legal process. There’s little question the SBIAA/IVDA was grossly negligent to entrust SBD fortunes to Scot Spencer. But the Feds were unable to prove malice on Spencer’s part, or anyone else. And while the audits showed rampant failure to adhere to best practices on the part of Spencer or the SBIAA/IVDA, turns out that however cavalier they were with public money, it didn’t rise to the level of criminality, at least not within the ability of the Feds to prove. It’s not against the law to be stupid the way they were, though maybe it should be.

Scot Spencer is no longer involved with the airport, but the terminal is still sitting there completely unused. But why? The Cardinal will tackle that tomorrow.

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33 comments on “The Folly of San Bernardino International Airport (Part 1)

  1. Interesting history. Anxious to read the next installment. Google satelite view is interesting too. Not so much to see the vacant terminal but it looks like a 747SP is parked near the hangars just to the south. Also an old American 727.

    1. The 747SP is the Clipper America which went to live at MHV at the end of 2017 so it’s an old image. If you go to the street view you can see Delta A320 N316US being taken apart.

  2. Our beloved Governor JB in Illinois is proposing to do exactly the same thing in Peotone, IL, three light years from downtown Chicago. The Peotone Worldport is back on the radar after being on life support for several administrations.

    JB and his political minions in Chicago’s Southland needs to read this article to understand what they will get in Peotone.

    1. I read an article Tuesday about Peotone being considered as a cargo airport. Though I share your concern about the viability of this idea, a cargo facility may be somewhat feasible (certainly more than a passenger airport), provided the necessary infrastructure (roads, rail) are available to support the transport of goods to/from the airport.

      1. Not so long as the 800 pound gorilla lives at the intersection of the Kennedy, Tri-State and Northwest Tollway. All of the major cargo carriers have operations at ORD, equipment and facilities capable of handling large cargo jets.

        The biggest cargo carriers, Fed-Ex and UPS, are unlikely to leave Chicago for an airport closer to New Orleans than it is downtown Chicago. Only kidding but if any of you Cranky readers have ever been to Peotone, you’d find a lot more corn than people. A lot more.

        Governor JB needs to take the money for the Peotone Worldport and use it for the state pension deficit instead.

  3. Great history lesson on SBD. What’s up with the planes stacked on top of each other? Looks like quasi storage.

  4. As a former resident of San Bernardino who always wondered what the story of this absurd situation was, this is fascinating and I am indebted to the author for making it public. San Bernardino was a middle class city whose precipitous decline into Detroit West began with the closure of Norton AFB and was much facilitated by some of the dumbest, most inept civic and government “leadership” in the recent history of the country. SBD is obviously cut from the same cloth. I am looking very much forward to the second installment of this saga.

  5. The follow up will probably confirm what some of us have long known. SBD suffers from all sorts of problems.

    Among them:

    Access in and out from the freeways is difficult.

    San Bernardino itself and adjoining Highland are, to put it nicely, anything but prime real estate. It’s not called San Bernaghetto for no reason. The local demographics by and large do not justify any sort of meaningful air service. This is much of the same reason Fresno has been underserved since forever.

    How would commercial traffic operate and not conflict with the approach path to ONT? Not to mention the mountains directly to the east. That must make for interesting landings. Sure, USAF C-141’s do it along 727’s being brought in empty to die there. But an A320 or ERJ with fare carrying passengers? Similar terrain was what helped kill the proposed El Toro airport: The airlines and pilots were almost unanimously opposed.

    Speaking of which, with ONT itself running far below capacity and being larger and being in a more centralized area and having easier access, what makes anyone think that SBD would help by splitting that traffic even more?

    If the IE were to ever have a need for a third commercial airport, March would make more sense. It’s much closer and has better access to the growing communities of Riverside to Temecula. That, unlike the San Berdoo region, has a viable demographic.

    SBD never had a chance and still has no future.

    1. The airlines and pilots we not against El Toro at all. In fact it would have been a much better environment than the congested SNA, surrounded by NIMBYS.

      1. Actually, I do recall Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) being less than enthused about El Toro. However, their objections were based on plans to retain the former runway configuration, and to operate arrival/departure patterns (flight paths) that were less than optimal for prevailing winds.

  6. The majority of the planned you see there are owned by Unical, which is a salvage company. They buy obsolete, out of service, planes; salvage usable parts from them and then sell those parts back to the airlines. It is a very profitable business and, from what I hear, a very good place to work.

  7. “It’s not hard to make the case that the Inland Empire is starved for air service. ONT passengers in 2018 were down substantially relative to 1998, despite 30%+ Inland Empire population growth over the same period.”

    I find it hard to make the case that the Inland Empire is starved for air service if at the same time demand for air service at one of the region’s two airports is down substantially despite 30%+ population growth.

    1. What I think The Cardinal was trying to say was that if you look just at the population numbers there should be more air service to the Inland Empire than just what exists at ONT. However, the reality of the region’s demographics and passenger count at ONT points to the same conclusion you’ve reached and the lack of success at SBD shows, that the region isn’t actually starved for service.

  8. Have often wondered the same about Palmdale. Another completely unused airport that has so much potential.

    1. Hey, I flew into Palmdale once when UA was operating Express flights from/to SFO for a short period of time.

  9. Interesting first installment. I’m hoping the next installment will discuss the possible rise of San Bernardino International as an air cargo hub.

    In 2016 & 2017, UPS operated from the airport during the peak Christmas holiday period. In 2018, UPS began year round operations from SBD.

    In 2018, FedEx inked a 5 year (with 5 year option) lease agreement for a cargo facility at the airport. This was despite the fact that FedEx had earlier in 2018 announced development plans for Ontario International.

    Earlier this year, Hillwood Enterprises, LLC. submitted an air cargo development proposal for a 101 acre site on the north side of the airport property. The highlights are approx 650,000′ of sort & distribution, and ramp space to accommodate 14 aircraft simultaneously. Viewing the site plan included in the Draft Environmental Assessment, the aircraft ramp is to accessed by a(n Aircraft Design) Group IV taxiway.

    Sounds and smells like Amazon Air will be coming to town.

  10. Surprised Allegiant isn’t in there with low fares trying to get people from ONT to drive 20ish miles to SBD where they could probably get some good rates for using the place.

    1. Where would they fly to? Allegiant serves Southern California as a leisure destination – they aren’t really targeting origin traffic from there. I can’t imagine there is much demand from Bellingham, WA or Eugene, OR to fly to San Bernardino for vacation.

      1. Maybe people living there would want to travel else where for vacation or visit family for low fares.

        1. It wouldn’t really fit Allegiant’s current business model and route map. They are basically 100% focused on flying leisure travelers to vacation destinations. “Visiting family” isn’t really a target market, but it’s something that happens to work out well for people who live in those vacation destinations.

          For origins in the Eastern US, the vacation destinations are mostly Florida, along with a couple beach destinations in the Southeast.

          For origins in the Western US, the main destinations are Vegas, Phoenix, and (to a lesser extent) LA. Vegas and LA are too close – people would rather drive. Phoenix-Mesa is also on the border of driving distance (5 hours), but more importantly it’s not obvious that people in the Inland Empire want to fly to a desert for vacation. If they want to hang out in the desert, there’s plenty of beautiful desert available within a short drive of their homes. ONT also already has 2 airlines with service to Phoenix.

          So the core problem is:
          – Allegiant is only focused on short-haul leisure flights to vacation destination.
          – SBD isn’t a vacation destination, so would have to be an origin airport.
          – None of Allegiant’s existing Western US vacation destinations are compelling for someone living in the Inland Empire.

  11. Not sure about the story behind Sanford Florida airport its always like a ghost town !! Also why can’t the old government ?? Navy bast with larger runway than the key west airport be converted into civilian use?? What a waste of a great space and runway

    1. Sanford did 3.1mm passengers in 2018 – not so much a ghost-town. But it’s highly seasonal, so there may be times of the year where it’s pretty empty.

      1. have been there 4 times to Sanford and nothing going on arrivals and departures wise!!Alot of socializing between employees.. I must have been there in lo volume times..

        1. Summer = Passenger trickle at Orlando North

          Winter = Floodgates broken

          SFD is an airport most frequented by low cost airlines who fly seasonal traffic into Florida’s largest tourist trap. The place will never be Orlando McCoy but it’s a great alternative for folks willing to drive an extra 30 to 40 miles on Interstate 4 or Fla. 417 to the tourist traps and are willing to put up with Allegiant, Spirit or some other ULCC.

          1. Spirit flies from MCO. SFB is almost 100% Allegiant, with a smattering of vacation charter flights from Europe thrown in.

  12. “The estimate was $104mm. He offered to do it for $38mm. Of course, by the time he was done, it actually cost over $100mm”

    Considering he got it done for about the actual budget, maybe the Germans should hire him to take over Bradenburg?

  13. Small point, while certainly large, SB county (20,105 sq mi) only slightly larger than Coconino County, AZ (18,661 sq mi) and not “twice the area as the next US county”.

  14. “It’s like an airline nerd went to extreme, even criminal, lengths to get and stay in aviation rather than cope with their addiction by participating in the civil aviation forum.”

    I’m owed a new keyboard!

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