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 Airliners.net 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.