AVALON — A site one mile south of here was selected last week for a proposed sea-level airport that could bring an additional 100,000 visitors a year to Santa Catalina Island by the end of the century.
It will be at least five years before the first commuter plane can touch down at the proposed airport--discussions have not even begun with the owner of the site--but city officials last week expressed optimism that the general aviation and commuter airport will be built. Construction is expected to cost about $13 million, excluding the cost of land.
The island's only existing airport is a private facility on a 1,600-foot hilltop half an hour's drive from Avalon. Known as the Airport-in-the-Sky, it is frequently closed by fog.
"A sea-level airport would definitely increase tourism, especially during the off-season," said Ken Weiss, executive director of the Catalina Chamber of Commerce.
Studied Since '83
A six-part feasibility study of a new airport began in 1983, when the City Council got two reports describing operations at Airport-in-the-Sky, forecasting the city's needs and identifying 17 potential sites for another airport.
Last week, when the council held its first public hearing on the proposal, the city's consultants identified Pebbly Beach, a beachfront industrial area with a small helicopter and seaplane terminal, as the best site for the new airport.
Council members approved the site unanimously, but some noted that no final decision on building a new airport has been made.
In about three months, the consultants will provide a detailed financial analysis of what it would cost to build the airport. An environmental impact report is expected six months later.
If an airport plan is approved, it would take about a year to get money from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is expected to pay 90% of the total cost, said Donald R. Allison, director of engineering for VTN Consolidated Inc. of Irvine, the consultants who prepared the reports.
It would take an additional two or three years to remove hillsides and fill in about eight acres of beachfront for a runway, he said.
As proposed, the 2,350-foot-long, 60-foot-wide runway would parallel the shoreline and have water at each end. With additional fill, the runway could be extended to 3,100 feet. Planes would land from the north and take off to the south.
The existing helicopter terminal would be used for commuter flights, the present aircraft parking apron would be used for tie-downs, and sea planes would continue to operate from the existing seaplane ramp.
Proposed in 1969
The idea of a sea-level airport closer to Avalon has been discussed by the council since the 1960s. The city commissioned a study in 1969 that recommended construction at Pebbly Beach of a 1,500-foot runway for short takeoff and landing aircraft, at a cost of $3.3 million.
That airport was never built because of its limited usefulness and a disagreement over the value of the land with the Santa Catalina Island Co., which owns Pebbly Beach.
Interest in the airport was renewed in the late 1970s and the city and Los Angeles County got a $160,000 FAA grant for the feasibility study.
The problems at Airport-In-The-Sky include:
- Frequent closure because to heavy fog.
- Limited accessibility and long travel time to Avalon.
- Poor runway condition.
- Restrictions on hours of operation and transportation to Avalon caused by private ownership of the airport. The airport is owned by the Santa Catalina Conservancy, a preservation foundation established by the Catalina Island Co. to maintain 86% of the island as a natural preserve.
Airport Closed Frequently
Airport-in-the-Sky officials say it has been closed at least part of the day 25% to 30% of the year since 1978, with a high of 118 closures in 1980. Some of those closures occurred, however, because of weather shutdowns at the Long Beach Municipal Airport, which handles much of the traffic between the island and the mainland.
Besides weather problems, Airport-in-the-Sky's 3,250-foot-by-100-foot runway rises in the middle and drops sharply at both ends, obstructing visibility from one end to the other, the consultants said. Federal safety officials said the airport had 19 accidents between Jan. 1, 1970, and Dec. 31, 1982, most of them caused by pilot misjudgments. The airport had 3.2 accidents per 100,000 takeoffs and landings, compared to the national average of 2.3.
Airport-in-the-Sky Manager Paul Moritz said about 22 aircraft are permanently based there, but it can accommodate up to 200 for temporary parking. There are no fuel or repair services.
Although the road from the airport to Avalon is a steep, winding, scenic trail through the interior of the island, many feel the half-hour drive is too long and discourages visitors. The road is constructed of a slurry seal and needs to be repaired frequently.
Air Traffic Once Boomed