Flat-Earth Thinking in Our Time

by Carolyn Chase


DeI'm fed up with big-airport boosterism. Study after study after study 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 dismiss the costs. It's taken as an article of faith in political circles in this region 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 a necessary means of bypassing the messy and inconvenient election process associated with democracy. Assemblyman Howard Wayne has jumped on with late-session legislation to ram through a new Authority -- without the required ballot approval that was promised as part of the RGEC process.

    Inquiring minds want to know: where's the vision?

    Both innovative visions of airports and their impacts are discussed in a "must read" article for San Diegans, in the July/August 2001 issue of Worldwatch magazine and reprinted in the September issue of sdearthtimes.com.

    "Airports and Cities: Can They Coexist" by Ed Ayres explains many aspects of flat-earth thinking that shape 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…. Building the inclined runway like an elongated highway overpass, with the terminal underneath it, would eliminate miles of taxiways and cut down on the airport's use of land, as well as of fuel. This adds up quickly, because a typical major airport accommodates around 1,000 flight a day - meaning a potential daily saving of close to 1 million gallons of fuel… there would also be a substantial reduction of noise."

    The article reveals the appalling 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." With 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, as also recommended by RGEC, Wayne has chosen to attempt to perpetuate the past paradigm of powerbrokers pursuing a political fix instead of engaging in the necessary political debate. It's a great disappointment that he has, so far, missed the chance to move the issues themselves forward.

    The article's most important point is about the kind of out-dated 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
  • Health impacts

    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 airport design, siting and expansions needs to move into the 21st century and beyond boosterism into real discussions about issues.

Be sure to check out the companion article Airports and Cities: Can they Coexist? in the September 2001 issue.