SCAG's Regional Transportation Plan Falls Down Hard on Aviation Policy

The recently published Southern California Association of Governments (“SCAG”) Draft Regional Transportation Plan 2012-2035, Sustainable Communities Strategy (“Draft RTP”) is a study in contrasts. The Draft RTP is meant to be a roadmap to “increasing mobility for the region’s residents and visitors.” Draft RTP, p. 1. Its “vision” purportedly “encompasses three principles that collectively work as the key to our region’s future: mobility, economy and sustainability.” Draft RTP, p. 1. SCAG’s jurisdiction falls largely into compartments: (1) surface transportation such as roadways and rail; and (2) aviation. SCAG has funding authority over the former, but none over the latter.

The purpose of the Draft RTP is to portray transportation from a broader regional, rather than merely local, perspective. On the one hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of surface transportation growth estimates, trends and proposed policies for the Southern California Region to the year 2035 contains relatively sophisticated and substantially complete analysis and projections that meet its goals. On the other hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of aviation trends and policies for meeting airport demand is reminiscent of a high school science project.

For example, the Draft RTP anticipates that, after the “urban capacity constrained airports of Los Angeles International (“LAX”), Bob Hope, Long Beach and John Wayne Airports (sic)” all meet their “defined legally allowable or physical capacity constraints,” the remainder of the demand will be served at “suburban airports with ample capacity to serve future demand, including Ontario International, San Bernardino International, March Inland Port, Palmdale Regional, Southern California Logistics and Palm Springs airports.” Draft RTP, p. 58. While SCAG is correct about the availability of unused capacity at Ontario International (“ONT”) (which is at its lowest passenger level since 1987 despite ample facilities including a new, unused, terminal), SCAG is flat wrong in the assumption that: (1) the other named airports actually have usable capacity; and (2) the “remainder of the demand” will automatically be siphoned off to airports more remote than ONT (which is actually an urban airport in the midst of a highly developed and developing Inland Empire). For example, San Bernardino International Airport (“SBIA”), while sporting a new, completely empty, terminal with apparently ample groundside capacity, has serious airspace conflicts with ONT, as well as a $4,000 foot high mountain at the end of its principal runway.

The Draft RTP further opines that “congested airports have an interest in shifting traffic to less congested airports.” Draft RTP, p. 61. No they don’t. Airports earn revenue by, among other things, airline landing fees and concessions revenues like food and parking, which in turn depend on increasing numbers of passengers. The favored (although not always desirable) solution for congested airports is to simply create more capacity which is largely funded by Federal dollars appropriated by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), with little or no downside to the local operator.

Finally, the Draft RTP opines that “for airports like LAX which has a significant component of international traffic that generates more revenue than domestic flights, it may be more efficient to limit domestic flights that could be accommodated at other airports in the region, thereby freeing up capacity for more lucrative international flights.” Draft RTP, p. 61. As an organization charged with understanding transportation laws and regulations, SCAG should be aware that it is not up to the airport or the local jurisdiction that operates it to “limit domestic flights” or any flights for that matter. “The United States government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States,” 49 U.S.C. § 40103(a)(1), including the type of aircraft allowed to fly and where they may land. While other laws such as the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 (49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq.) circumscribe the Federal government’s preemptive sovereignty to some extent, the local airport operator may only choose to construct, or not to construct, facilities to accommodate aircraft operations. Once such facilities exist, a local operator may not choose between operations based on their ultimate destinations.

In summary, while the Draft RTP’s general conceptual framework, analyzing transportation as a regional and cooperative issue among regional jurisdictions is supportable, the Draft RTP entirely omits from its aviation analysis reference to, or consideration of, the third party with the real power to make a difference in the allocation of regional air transportation resources – the FAA. Without such consideration, the Draft RTP’s aviation policies amount to nothing more than a wish list. The comment period on the Draft RTP extends until February 14, 2012.

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