CARLSBAD — County officials are moving forward with a proposal to extend the runway at McLellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad by more than 18 percent, a project supporters say would be a huge boost to North County’s economy but neighbors fear would create more noise and safety problems in the area.
More than 100 people attended a public workshop last week where county officials began the long process of creating a new 20-year master plan for the airport, which has served only private planes and small commercial aircraft since it opened in the 1950s.
McLellan-Palomar Airport and San Diego’s Lindbergh Field are the only airports in the county that offer commercial service. United Express runs about 15 flights a day from Carlsbad to Los Angeles, and California Pacific Airlines has been seeking federal approval to run flights to Northern California and Las Vegas.
County officials said the goal of the workshops — a second one is scheduled for April — is gathering feedback and exploring whether expanding the airport might create problems they haven’t considered.
The master plan, which must eventually be approved by the county Board of Supervisors after an environmental analysis, could recommend extending the runway from 4,879 feet to 5,797 feet, a 900-foot-increase.
A 500-page feasibility study completed last summer concludes that such an extension would allow the airport to serve planes flying to the East Coast and Asia, making shipping and travel more convenient for local companies, especially those in the biotech and aerospace industry.
The longer runway wouldn’t allow large jets to begin using the airport, but it would allow the smaller planes that already use it to carry more fuel and travel longer distances.
The study also says a longer runway would actually mean less noise for many neighborhoods near the airport, which is near the city’s borders with San Marcos and Vista. Planes would be higher off the ground when they pass over houses because the longer runway would allow them to take off sooner, the study says.
The study also says the extension would improve safety because the planes would be flying higher more quickly and because the proposal includes creating a 315-foot safety area that would slow planes down in an emergency.
“I don’t look at it as an expansion — I look at it as addressing sound and safety issues,” Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall said Friday. “Changing the launch point will make the planes higher when they leave the airport, and they’ll be turning south over an industrial area instead of over homes.”
But many residents are skeptical of such claims.
Hope Nelson, who lives near the airport in south Carlsbad, said at last Wednesday’s forum that it makes no sense to allow an already dangerous airport to have a longer runway.
“I’ve seen four crashes in 13 years,” she said. “I also don’t see why they need to expand when the number of flights isn’t increasing. I don’t get why they’re going to jump through all these hoops.”
The number of passengers using the airport has declined over the years, from a peak of about 85,000 per year in 2000 to roughly 51,000 in 2012. But supporters of the extension say allowing planes to reach farther destinations would change that.
San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond said he supports the proposal as long as long as the planes won’t be landing farther east, which would make the planes closer to the ground — and louder — over San Marcos.
“They haven’t really established where the landing spot will be,” Desmond said Friday.
One hurdle facing the expansion is the $90 million estimated cost. But county officials said they expect to get federal grants for nearly $60 million.
And last summer’s feasibility study predicted the expansion would pay for itself by boosting the economy more than $160 million during its first two decades.
Janet Adams, a United Express employee who attended the forum, said passengers often ask about the possible expansion because the airport is so much more convenient for North County residents than traveling to San Diego.