West Coast Terminals in Transition

Major airports move ahead with construction; low-fare carriers keep smaller runways busy

By: Jerry Chandler

The Western skyscape is changing and travel agents should know the trends.

" Low-fare carriers are continuing to expand far beyond regional borders.

" Their growth is keeping the runways busy at what used to be called “alternative” airports.

" Despite declines in travel volume, some metro airports are pushing ahead with construction and renovation plans.

Here’s what’s happening at select airports:


Although air traffic at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport declined some 5% during the first half of this year compared to a similar period in 2001, the airport is in the midst of its first major makeover since the late 1960s.

Things are changing so fast that when an airline worker recently parked his shuttle cart for a coffee break he returned to find workers had built a construction wall around it.

Consider: The Central Terminal is being expanded to encompass more retail space and large public areas. Concourse A is being completely rebuilt and enlarged. Both projects are slated for completion in 2004. Sea-Tac’s Satellite Transit System, essentially a subway that opened in 1969, is being renovated.

Finally, a third runway is scheduled for completion in 2006. The project is expected to significantly reduce delays related to bad weather.


Since Delta pulled its trans-Pacific service in the late 1990s, the Oregon airport has been relegated to an “O&D” facility, essentially handling only origin and destination passengers.

But that could change.

The city is in a fight with Seattle to land Lufthansa and nonstop service to Frankfurt.

While a number of international carriers frequent SEA, transcontinental carriers no longer call at PDX. Oregon officials argue that the German flag carrier would have the advantage of an airport all to itself, at least for international flights.

Overall, PDX traffic is down 8% to 9% this year, on par with national declines.

San Francisco

With traffic tumbling 15%, SFO continues to suffer.

Weather delays aren’t as bad as they once were, but only because, “We have fewer flights, so there’s less impact,” said Mike McCarron, the airport’s director of community affairs. “We’re still one of the worst delayed in the nation.”

The airport’s Web site explains that when foggy or bad weather forces the closure of one runway, it cuts SFO’s arrival capacity from 60 flights per hour to 30.

When the airline industry rebounds, expect clients’ frustration levels to rise commensurately as they wait for late flights. And don’t expect any quick fixes. The configuration of SFO’s runways is the root of the problem, and it could be years before local, state and federal officials settle on a solution. Oakland International, where traffic is up by 3%, is the direct beneficiary of SFO’s woes. Southwest continues to expand there, as does another low-fare force, JetBlue.

South Bay traffic, however, is off: Traffic at San Jose is down 20% to 22%.

“A lot of that can be attributed to the cutbacks by American,” said Brian Streeval, an airline analyst with the Colorado-based Boyd Group. The area’s tech-dependent economy is also to blame.

Before Sept. 11, AA had planned to launch nonstop Paris and Taipei service from SJC. Now, those flights are on hold.

Los Angeles

Traffic at LAX is off 14% to 15% as major carriers, including some international airlines, reassess and retrench.

Alitalia is the latest airline to cut back, axing LAX-Milan service. American Airlines, however, recently dedicated its T4 hub at LAX. T4, the result of $300 million in improvements, is now conveniently linked to the Tom Bradley International Terminal via a moving walkway.

But the big story in the Los Angeles basin is Long Beach, where traffic was up 75% for the first half of 2002 compared to the same period a year ago.

JetBlue has put the bounce in LGB. Not only are its transcons to New York JFK going strong, the low-fare carrier recently launched service to Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

San Diego

Traffic at the West Coast’s southernmost airport is down some 7%, a bit better than the national average. That’s because Southwest is such a force at SAN.

There’s a real dynamic going on up and down the coast, Streeval said. United has pulled capacity from the market and virtually abandoned their shuttle product, leaving room for more expansion by Southwest, he said.

But don’t expect WN to expand within the region, at least not as it had been doing in recent years. Because of the economy and security delays, travelers are taking fewer short-haul flights.

“You might actually see Southwest expanding into the area from other parts of the country,” Streeval said.

For example, the carrier just announced that it will fly San Jose-Baltimore/Washington nonstop beginning Jan. 12, a follow-up to its successful LAX-BWI service.