Flat-earth thinking in our time

What we don't know that we don't know about airports and air travel.

by Carolyn Chase

'm fed up with big-airport boosterism. Study after study after study after has piled up on putting a new international airport in the San Diego region. These studies provide easy targets for “Golden Fleece” awards from the San Diego County Taxpayer's Association.

    They all tout the benefits and downplay the costs. It's taken as an article of faith in political circles that more runways wherever we could possibly put them are necessary. It then moves quickly to a war over where, without visiting many complex and critical related issues. No one seems to have considered that, by examining the other issues, the Gordian knot of where could actually be untied.

    The optimistically-named Regional Government Efficiency Commission recommended that a new Airport Authority be created and filled with political appointees without needing to be accountable to the voting public. This authoritarian response is deemed necessary as a means of bypassing the messy and inconvenient election process associated with democracy. Assemblyman Howard Wayne has jumped on with late-session legislation to rush through a new Authority without required ballot approval that was promised as part of the RGEC process.

    The problems identified by RGEC continued declines in quality of life due to sprawl, loss of open space, funding and infrastructure deficits, pollution and traffic are unlikely to be solved until some accountable regional decision-making body is established to enhance the current limitations and biases of the SANDAG “agency-by-memo” structure. But delinking airport planning and decision-making from the democratic process is an expediency to be reviled.

    If a new international airport is such a good and important thing, then an acceptable deal should be able to be brokered within the region to design it, site it, identify financing and to fully mitigate and minimize the impacts. The plan and people working on it should be accountable to the electorate.

    Democracy is messy but it requires reconciliation and compromise combined with voter accountability, not a consolidation of power that decreases accountability. Projects should not have public accountability reduced by using appointees essentially unanswerable to voting, taxpaying citizens.

    But the power brokers are still trying to shove it down the peoples' throats without proving their mettle for the privilege. That is unfair and will be resisted. It should be resisted.

    What SDET wants to know is: where's the vision?

    Both the lack of innovative vision and impact of airports are discussed in a “must read” article for San Diegans from the July/August 2001 issue of Worldwatch magazine and being reprinted in this issue of SDET.

    “Airports and Cities: Can They Coexist” by Ed Ayres explains the many aspects of flat-earth thinking that shapes airport planning and politics today. His pithy examples inform and inspire.

    “A flat runway forces the 425-ton jet that is landing on it to throw its engines into reverse and burn a huge amount of fuel to come to a stop. Imagine, instead, a landing strip that is slightly inclined so that as the plane touches down it decelerates by rolling up a 2- to 3-percent grade.”

    The article reveals the lack of “smart growth” thinking when it comes to airports noting that “Airports consume land, energy and dumping capacity at rates rarely equaled anywhere else.” But by better design, a “whole airport could be built on one-third the land, at one-half the cost, with lower operating costs, and a cleaner environment which also means the airlines and other airport-related businesses could operate a lot more profitably.”

    They also note that “the problem is that no one is in charge of the airport system ... airport administrations have become worlds unto themselves quasi-independent, and fully accountable to no one.”

    Where have San Diegans heard this before? The discussions swirling around regionalism come to mind. There's lots of government, lots of taxes, lots of politicians, but no integrated plan and limited connectivity and accountability. Instead of pursuing such a plan, Wayne has chosen to attempt to perpetuate the past paradigm.

    The article's most important point is about the kind of outdated, sprawl-thinking that's being used to approach new airport capacity. Airport thinking is firmly lodged in the past, echoing,

    “the 19th century notion that the way to get rid of any kind of congestion whether of people, traffic, or waste is simply to remove to a more open space.... But looking only at the profitability of new tracts, versus the redesign of cities, we missed the costs of destroying habitat, paving over farmland, increasing energy consumption and so on... it's an escalation of sprawl.

    “In the energy industry, the impulse is to drill for more oil, rather than to use existing supplies much more efficiently, In waste management, the impulse is to find more space to dump. In housing, it's to develop more land, rather than design for higher density on the land already claimed for human use. All these impulses are vestiges of pioneer times, when it was always possible to find more resources by moving on, opening up new territory.”

    All new territory now has neighbors.

    Ayres summarizes airport impacts into five major categories: land consumption, air pollution, water pollution, noise and health impacts. And he dazzles with details:

    “... In the first two minutes after a 747 takes off, it emits as much air pollution as 3,000 cars... The exhaust from a single plane may spread to cover as much as 13,000 square miles (34,000 sq. kilometers). For each passenger on a trans-Pacific flight, about a ton of CO2 is added to the earth's atmosphere. Carbon dioxide combined with other exhaust gases and particulates emitted from jet engines could have two to four times as great an impact on the atmosphere as CO2 emissions alone. In the first five minutes of flight, a commercial airliner burns turns to CO2 as much oxygen as 44,000 acres of forest produce in a day... Jet contrails have been implicated in the development of enormous heat-trapping clouds, which may be escalating plane impacts on climate. Minimum, daily, smog-related emissions are the equivalent of about 3 million miles of automobile driving.

    “People living or working near airports have been found to suffer sharply increased rates of psychological impairment, degenerative illness, and mortality... when the new Munich airport went into operation, a study of third and fourth-grade children living in the flight path found significant increases in blood pressure and stress hormones, compared with a similar group of children living in the same area before the airport began operation. These hormones are linked to adult illnesses, some which are life-threatening, including high-blood pressure, elevated lipids and cholesterol, heart disease, and reduction in the body's supply of disease-fight immune cells.”

    “In the United States, legal loopholes have left airports exempt from either reporting to the Toxic Release Inventory or regulation under the Clean Water Act.”

    Clearly, thinking about new airport expansions needs to move beyond boosterism and into the 21st century with a real discussion about the issues. Read the article and let us know what you think about increasing airport capacity in the San Diego region.

    Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and chair of the Mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at .