The Folly of San Bernardino International Airport (Part 2)

Cardinal, Guest Posts, SBD - San Bernardino

If you missed it, yesterday The Cardinal returned to guest post about San Bernardino International Airport and the scandal that led to its commercial terminal being built… and completely unused. Today, he looks into why that is.

At best it seems the San Bernardino International Airport (SBD) commercial terminal was built by people driven by willful wishful thinking. But still, it’s there, it’s ready to go, and any airline will get a heck of a deal. Terminal and landing fees are rock bottom relative to most big airports. A lot of people live near SBD. Put a 25 mile radius circle around the airport, there are 2.7mm people. Put a 50 mile radius circle around it, there are 9mm people. So why hasn’t SBD attracted an airline?

There are problems. While the Inland Empire is booming, the city of San Bernardino is troubled. 40-50 years ago, it was prosperous – dubbed an All-American city, it was the place where such American icons as McDonalds and Taco Bell got their start and the first city you came to on Route 66 after descending the Cajon Pass into the LA Basin. Today, it’s one of the poorest cities in Southern California and the San Bernardino brand name isn’t so great for potential passengers in the LA Basin. Ironically, part of the problem was the 1994 shutdown of Norton AFB (today’s SBD), which at one time supported a population (including dependents) of as many as 22,000 people. The poverty in the city also means that many of those who live closest have the least wherewithal to afford air travel.

But the bigger issue is that eccentric development had serious consequences, because the terminal is about as badly located as it could be.

A quick look at a map shows the problem – the commercial terminal is in the center of the rectangle formed by the freeways around SBD – I-215 to the west, I-10 along the south, and CA-210 on the north and east. The SBD terminal is essentially as far as it is possible to be from the freeways, the Southern California circulatory system. Yeah, that’s really dumb, because air travel is in significant part about convenience, and end-to-end travel time matters greatly. Before they fly, passengers need to get to the airport, and after they land, they need to get from airport to home. The shorter that journey, the better.

I-10 is the main east-west freeway through the LA basin, and from I-10 to SBD, the relevant road is Tippecanoe. From the I-10 eastbound exit onto Tippecanoe to the SBD terminal, there are 14 traffic lights and a railroad crossing totaling 15 opportunities to stop on the way to the airport after you exit the freeway. Tippecanoe is surrounded by warehouses, including a gigantic complex for the Stater Bros supermarket chain. So there are trucks everywhere and next to the freeway there’s also a Costco, motels and other traffic generators. Tippecanoe is hardly an empty free-wheeling boulevard down which to dash.

It’s little better from the other freeways. Coming eastbound along CA-210 to the north, it’s 12 traffic lights before the terminal. Coming northbound along CA-210 to the east, it’s 11 traffic lights. Coming southbound along I-215 to the west, it’s 16 traffic lights and a railroad crossing. However you try to get to SBD from a freeway, Google Maps says it’s 3-4 miles and about a 9 or 10 min drive from the freeway – and that’s at times of the day without congestion. That is a lot of street driving through a city with an iffy reputation.

By comparison, going westbound along I-10 to ONT, it’s only four traffic lights from the ONT exit to the ONT terminals – only three minutes and less than a mile according to Google. Once you get to the ONT I-10 exit, you’re more-or-less there because ONT is immediately to the south. ONT may be underserved, but it’s not for lack of access.

Whiffing on the one good terminal location

To be fair, access to SBD was always going to be challenging because the Santa Ana River runs along the south edge of the airport, and there’s a decent distance between the Santa Ana and I-10. The Santa Ana is dry most of the year, but the river and its “washes” (low lying areas into which it occasionally floods) are environmentally sensitive. So development to the south of the airport is tough, even though that’s where you’d want a terminal to be if you want access to I-10. Indeed, the primacy of access to I-10 was once well understood – in 1980, while Norton AFB was still in operation, a developer wanted to build a commercial terminal at Tippecanoe and I-10. The Air Force pushed back on this idea to protect the base – only to have it selected for shutdown in 1988.

There is one exception, however. At the western side of the southern edge of the airport is a warehouse complex immediately adjacent to the runway, most of it occupied by two Amazon buildings. This was constructed starting in 2008-2009. Prior to that, the land was vacant. Actually, back in the Air Force days, it was the base’s 18-hole golf course. Apparently it was important to have a place to relax after a busy day shipping draftees to Vietnam.

This location was, by far, the best possible site for an SBD commercial terminal. The location is a four-minute drive from I-10 along Tippecanoe and involves six traffic lights (and the railroad crossing). It’s even faster from I-10 via the Mountain View exit, but access to the Amazon site from I-10 via Mountain View was actually built as part of the Amazon warehouse project; it didn’t exist in 2008. Nonetheless, that site was still by far the best place for a passenger terminal at SBD in terms of access, and when SBIAA/IVDA started thinking about a commercial service in the early-to-mid 2000s, that land was still vacant.

No doubt Amazon also appreciates being close to I-10, but boxes don’t mind traffic lights and trucks and warehouses and a few extra miles nearly as much as does human cargo. The site SBD actually used for a terminal is surrounded by warehouses, so clearly it was at least within the realm of the possible to have used today’s commercial terminal location for warehouses and use the Amazon site for a terminal. Indeed, an air cargo base is being developed for the north side of SBD for what everyone assumes is Amazon. Woulda shoulda coulda. Oh well.

Though it still leaves the question as to whether SBD would ever attract commercial service even if it had good access. But to the extent it does, being close to a freeway is a big factor. “Build it and they will come” is a dangerous proposition, but if you build it where access is easy, you’re certainly better off than building it where access is hard. If they can’t find it, they certainly won’t come.

I tend to believe that as LAX and Orange County (SNA) run out of capacity and/or become more expensive, and as Southern California freeways become ever more congested, alternative airports like ONT and SBD will have their day. But for sure that day will come faster if passenger terminals at such airports are easy to access. ONT is in good shape, but stashing the SBD terminal as far from the freeways as possible was the worst thing the SBIAA could have done in that regard. Eight years of vacant terminal baking in the sun is proof, and there’s every chance it will continue to bake, vacant, for years to come, notwithstanding the bargain rates an airline would get at SBD.

Can anything be done?

It would take major investment to improve access to the current SBD terminal – to eliminate traffic lights (perhaps some kind of one-way system?), to increase speed limits, etc. It’s not hard to imagine that in the end it might cost more than re-locating the terminal elsewhere and turning over the existing space for more warehouses. It seems pretty unlikely that a limited-access road (i.e. mini freeway) could be built to the existing terminal from I-10, and that’s really what is needed to properly address the issue.

But the aforementioned problems with the Santa Ana River likely make another location a heavy lift. Assuming you could wave a magic wand and eliminate possible environmental issues, perhaps a site south of the runway at the east end, near/next to CA-210 might result in the best access, since in theory it could be immediately adjacent to a freeway, even if is further away from the vast bulk of the LA Basin (and Inland Empire) population to the west. Trading off a few more miles for direct freeway access might be worth it.

And if that’s not possible, then the next best place may be to the north and east of the runway, again as close to I-210 as possible, along 3rd St. But these are at best second-and-third best solutions relative to the one that the airport foreclosed when they whiffed on the location now occupied by Amazon, and built, instead, on what is almost certainly the worst location.

It turns out that when you empower people who have no idea what they’re doing, bad outcomes can ensue, even if that’s not their intent. What happened at San Bernardino might not have been criminal, but it was surely a mistake. Eight years of vacant terminal has already shown that.

If you missed the first part of this story, you can find it here.

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18 comments on “The Folly of San Bernardino International Airport (Part 2)

  1. The other day when I looked at the Google aerial I did wonder how you would access the airport easily. I can see the prospect of saving some $$$ in exchange for less congestion and hassle that is LAX…but, I’d expect the extra time would be driving the Riverside Freeway down to Anaheim – not local traffic in San Bernardino.

    I did check to see drive times. Seems it can range anywhere from 60min to 2hours to downtown LA. Disneyland is about the same. Hard to say how much time is surface streets but I’d think if you can consistently plan on 1-hour into LA then SBD would be a viable alternative. Then again, with LA area freeways I never count on drive times.

    1. Even with a good terminal location, SBD would never attract a significant share of the market for travel to/from central LA. If you’re traveling to or from downtown LA and want to avoid LAX, then BUR and LGB already exist and are much closer. Even SNA and ONT are way closer than SBD.

      SBD’s only viable market is O/D traffic to and from the Inland Empire. However, the Inland Empire is huge, so that’s a pretty decent market. The real problem for SBD is that ONT exists, and getting to ONT is just as convenient as getting to SBD for most flyers in the area. ONT also has more than enough capacity to handle any expected increase in demand, so there’s no real reason for airlines to take a gamble on SBD just for slightly cheaper fees.

      Similar problems exist all over the country wherever there are two airports within the same small-to-medium-sized market. For example, PHF (Newport News, VA) has really struggled despite a lot of government incentives, because flyers in their core area prefer to just drive to ORF (Norfolk, VA) for more convenient flight times, more direct routes, etc.

      If ONT didn’t exist, SBD would be successful regardless of terminal location. Because ONT already exists, airlines and travelers would need a compelling reason to prefer it, and slightly lower fees don’t cut it.

    2. My in-laws live across the freeway in Loma Linda so I’ve made those drives several times. It’s mostly straight shots down freeways (the 10 or 60 to DTLA, or the 10 or 60 to the 57 to reach Disneyland), but 1 to 2 hours is pretty accurate. Maybe a little less to Disneyland when there’s no traffic. There is, unfortunately, no way you could consistently achieve 60 minutes to either LA or Anaheim given the nature of SoCal freeway traffic.

      The issue, as Alex notes, is that even if you could get consistent 60 minute drive times, you can do better than that by just flying into ONT, which shaves a good 20 minutes off the above, and is an easy airport to navigate in its own right. Heck, even though my in-laws live right there, I’d still need convincing to use SBD over ONT given the better options, and since ONT just isn’t that far to begin with.

  2. While a boondoggle certainly, the cargo aspect makes it somewhat redeemable, and it appears that it will continue to expand along those lines. Compared to MidAmerica, which while attracting Allegiant, has little in the way of cargo operations and price wise was a significantly larger project. The mistake obviously was in making the bet on pax service versus continuing to cater to the cargo industry.

  3. Ion thing you fail to mention, this is the SECOND terminal built at SBD. The first one went unused so they thought a newer more modern one would bee the solution. This one had their “Grand Opening” (with a DC-3 out on the ramp for effects) must have been something like the late 90’s early 2000’s. Total waste on both counts.

  4. In my distinctly inexpert opinion, this sounds like a development effort for San Bernardino County and the LA are generally, more than a strict market-based question of airline feasibility and preference.  The first question to be answered is whether the LA region needs additional air passenger capacity – or better yet, when will the region need capacity.  The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) can probably answer that question. 

    Once that baseline information is set, it might be possible to guess (estimate is too precise a word)  how much investment would be justified to make SBA viable.  Based on this very good article, it seems that the potential tradeoffs involve either changing the road network or moving the terminal.  Ordinarily, I’d vote for changing the road network by either improving existing access roads or (more likely), building direct access off from the 215.  As a supplement and marketing strategy, it would not be beyond the scope of human endeavor to extend Metrolink to SBA from its downtown San Bernardino terminus.  That could draw traffic from the eastern end of the San Gabriel Valley and the Riverside area. 

    At that point, SBA would need to find airlines willing to fly into the facility.  They might adopt an approach I saw once in Portland, ME, where the airport provides all of the terminal and ramp staffing.  That allowed the airlines to serve the airport without investing in and managing ground staff.  The selling point to airlines is the possibility of having a very popular, easy-to-use airport where there’s no stress or waiting time, along the lines, say of LGB.

    This makes sense in the context of a regional development plan.  The airlines aren’t in the business of improving access, so that has to be done by local authorities.  And local authorities would need to prime the pump to get service started – and possibly to maintain it.  That decision would depend on the economic development potential of the airport and its associated economic impact.

    1. Nothing (short of massive, ongoing fare subsidies) would make SBD viable as long as ONT exists and has capacity. ONT is too close, and already has a critical mass of multiple airlines.

      1. Life is full of subsidies.  Imagine a world where you actually had to pay directly for the cost of highway construction and maintenance, including the environmental externalities.  Imagine further that you had to pay for the full cost of air traffic control.  It’s not so much whether we want to subsidize nominally private sector business activities, but how and which ones we want to subsidize.  Besides, SBD is sunk cost. All those millions have been spent.   It seems to me that the task now is to use the asset as well as we can.

  5. I think the highway access is not a problem. Just time the street lights so it’s a smooth drive from I-10.

    The huge problem is that it is not that far from Ontario International Airport. That airport is not congested like LAX or LHR. It has plenty of capacity to add flights. It would be like “why serve Mid-America instead of St. Louis Lambert?”

    It’s use for cargo is fine. Cargo looks for cheap airports if the drive if not that bad, only slightly bad. San Bernardino fits that criteria well.

    In California, the problems I see are no great answers for San Diego, fog at SFO, and not enough business for many flights to Monterey, Bakersfield, and Fresno.

  6. This reminds me of the Cruise Ship Terminal built at the Port of Houston. They spent $83 million putting in a cruise terminal, expecting people to use it because it’s closer to Houston than Galveston. But Galveston is a popular tourist spot, and the Bayport Cruise Terminal is surrounded by refineries and chemical plants and there’s no hotels there. It sat empty save for the months that Galveston was down from a hurricane. They did get two cruise lines to go in after that for a season but they pulled out because it’s a terrible spot for tourists.

    They finally disassembled the gangways and it’s all used for cargo.

    If Ontario didn’t exist, SBD might have a chance. But people in the IE have been going to Ontario for years and like it.

    This is what happens when you put a board in charge of tax revenue and they have no idea of what they are doing.

  7. You mentioned the Norton AFB closing impact, and there were two other Mil facilities that closed/downsized due to BRAC in the same time frame: George AFB in Victorville and March ARB in Moreno Valley.
    Travelers to the east of SBD can use Palm Springs, to the west can use ONT. Dead duck.

  8. Brett – the distance from the freeway is not the main issue. There are much larger airports with just as large of a drive from the terminal to freeway access….SAN and MDW come readily to mind.

    The larger issue is the San Bernardino demographics. A large number of people? yes. A large number of people flying? No.

    The household income is roughly the same in Riverside as the rest of the U.S. Unfortunately, the cost of living is significantly higher, tax rates significantly higher (county tax rate twice the amount as the National average), and per capita income 28% BELOW the national average (indicative of large family size). Add on top of this no tourist draw nor significant business travel.

    The demographics do not create a recipe for a profitable airline destination – hence no airline service.

  9. I’m not entirely sure the LA area needs another airport until/unless existing airports max out. Only BUR and SNA are anywhere close to maximum capacity, although LAX is getting there if you only account for prime flight time slots.

    If there’s a market for another airport, it’s not SBD, it’s Redlands Muni (L12) or the former March AFB. Redlands airport once had commercial service, plus, despite being just 8 miles west of SBD, it’s in a significantly more affluent part of the county.

    March’s location in Riverside County is freeway close and, more importantly, it’s catchment area includes all of the same places SBD could draw from plus Temecula and the northern San Diego County suburbs.

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