Airliner takes off from San Diego
A passenger jet takes off from San Diego International Airport. Photo by Chris Stone

Constraints imposed by having a single runway will begin slowing passenger growth at San Diego International Airport sooner than expected, perhaps as early as 2035, airport officials said Friday.

At a briefing for reporters, airport President and CEO Kim Becker said the airport is currently handling 225,000 takeoffs and landings annually and will reach maximum capacity at just under 300,000.

“As a single-runway airport, we have a hard cap,” she said.

The new forecast is part of changes being made to the airport’s $3 billion improvement plan, which will replace Terminal One, add a new taxiway, a parking deck, a transit station and a new roadway to take traffic off Harbor Drive between Laurel Street and the airport.

Those changes will allow the airport to comfortably handle 40 million passengers a year, up from 25 million currently, and likely the maximum possible with the single runway. By 2050, further growth in passenger traffic would not be possible.

Chart shows projected growth in passengers, with the trend flattening in 2035. Courtesy San Diego County Airport Authority

Becker said airlines will respond to the coming runway limit by switching to larger planes and changing schedules, while the Federal Aviation Administration may assign specific “landing slots” as is done at busy smaller airports like LaGuardia in New York and Washington-Reagan in the nation’s capital.

“They’ll start filling in the non-peak times,” she said, resulting in “a steady stream of flight operations.”

Passenger traffic has been growing by 7 to 10 percent annually for the past five years, far above the long-term rate of around 2 percent annually. It could slow, but Becker said the airport must take into account the current trend.

“You’re going to see ups and downs. The economy may have a slump,” she said, but eventually the runway’s limit will be reached.

The airport is currently working on a revised environmental impact statement, which should be completed within two months. Environmental review will then take most of 2020, with construction beginning in 2021 and taking 3 years.

Graphic shows the airport’s latest development plant, which trims some parking to allow for a transit station. Courtesy San Diego County Airport Authority

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.