Airport Planner Dreams of Pie in the Sky

Airports, those big-ticket items of regional planning, are a hot topic again. LAX, Burbank, El Toro--all are the focus of political warfare. And meanwhile, up in the Antelope Valley, Palmdale Airport boosters keep the faith. But if we built the expansion, will the airlines really come?

Into all these frays steps Tim Merwin, principal aviation planner for the agency with the ugliest acronym in government--SCAG, or the Southern California Assn. of Governments. SCAG, whose membership includes seven Southland counties and scores of municipalities, is an influential outfit whose meetings are subject to the Brown Act. SCAG can imagine great highways tunneling through mountains, yet it has no power to, say, fill a single pothole.

For more than two decades Merwin’s job has been to dream of airports, both great and humble, and to study their feasibility. And so the 56-year-old former Air Force pilot sighs and offers a wan smile, glumly joking about his “23-year losing streak.”

“I’ve probably been defeated on more airport sites than any airport planner in the United States.”



Maybe it just comes with the territory--the territory for Merwin being the vast megalopolis of Greater Los Angeles. It’s hard to find places for new airports in an area hemmed in by mountains on one side, an ocean on the other. And in between those rocks and that wet place are millions of people who want airports in somebody else’s backyard. (Having once owned a home beneath the flight path to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, I understand completely.)

It’s those people who make Merwin sometimes feel his job is to be “a polite target.” Up in Ventura County, for example, residents vented their ire at him for talking up Point Mugu’s feasibility as a commercial airport. Foes of plans to build a commercial airport at El Toro consider him the enemy, as do, surely, foes of the LAX expansion, which SCAG supports.

Merwin, a Woodland Hills resident, has been sighing a lot lately. His duty, he explains, is to provide the best research and analysis possible, and then hope for an honest political process. He says he doesn’t mind losing as long as it’s a fair fight: “That’s why I’ve been able to absorb so many defeats.”


What bothers him, he says, is when the fights become unfair, the process less than honest. Consider, for example, the massive proposed expansion of Los Angeles International. Mayor Riordan is leading a campaign that would virtually double the airport’s capacity. Merwin says it’s doable, from a planning and engineering standpoint.

Opponents contend that LAX expansion will cause massive gridlock and increase the odds of disaster. They have suggested that the proposed increase for air traffic to LAX simply be rationed to Burbank, Palmdale, Ontario, John Wayne and, if built, El Toro.

SCAG’s analysis, however, shows that only half of the increase could be rerouted locally, because only LAX has the infrastructure to handle international passengers, many of whom never leave the airport but connect to other flights. The real question, Merwin suggests, is whether Southern California wants that traffic--and the economic benefits that come with it--to be diverted to regional competitors such as Phoenix, San Francisco and Denver.

With SCAG projecting that Southern California is expected to grow by “two Chicagos” by the year 2020, it’s fair to wonder how much growth is too much growth. Merwin says he can understand why Southern Californians may conclude that rerouting some traffic toward other regions will be politically popular.


Beyond the mountains, in the Antelope Valley, boosters still ask: What about us? What about all that acreage the Los Angeles Airport authority bought a generation ago amid dreams of another major commercial airport? What about all that talk of a “bullet train” zipping travelers between Palmdale and LAX?

The gap between dreams and reality, however, is huge. A few months ago, Palmdale lost its last little commercial turboprop flight; the market couldn’t support it. One reason is that, according to SCAG, Antelope Valley residents are 18 times less likely to buy a round-trip ticket than people in Santa Monica. SCAG projects considerable growth in northern Los Angeles County--but most of it will be in Santa Clarita, closer to Burbank than Palmdale.

Merwin’s crystal ball does show commercial carriers returning to Palmdale someday. By the year 2010, he figures, “I do see it happening as a regional airport, along the lines of what Palm Springs is today.”

But his opinion, he adds, really isn’t the crucial one.


“More important is how the airlines look at it.”


Your correspondent remembers another day, in the early 1980s, when airport dreams were getting plenty of ink. Long before Hong Kong built its airport on a man-made island, SCAG considered precisely the same concept for the L.A.-Long Beach harbor. Long Beach homeowners were up in arms.

Later came a meeting in which a SCAG committee pondered the possibility of flattening out a plateau in the Santa Ana Mountains, creating a kind of airport-in-the-sky. Nearby Orange Countians rebelled, of course. (Little did they realize then, in those early days of the Reagan Administration, that the Marines would leave El Toro.)


“The lack of options,” Merwin says, is what inspires “heroic concepts” like man-made islands and mountain schemes. Actually, the danger of wind shear killed the mountain proposal before homeowners had a chance to. But the island concept, he says, “will always be there. From an engineering standpoint, it’s achievable.”

Who knows? Japan also has an airport on a man-made island, so L.A. may yet wish to keep up with its Pacific Rim neighbors. And since we’re dreaming, how about another peace dividend? What if the Marine Corps ever decided to relinquish Camp Pendleton?

Merwin has studied that too.

“You could put another LAX there,” he says, nodding. “It would fit.”


Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311, or via e-mail at Please include a phone number.

It’s hard to find places for new airports in an area hemmed in by mountains and an ocean.