San Bernardino International Airport: A quick chat with the director

AJ Wilson has high hopes for San Bernardino International Airport. Photo: Rick Sforza, staff photographer.

AJ Wilson has high hopes for San Bernardino International Airport.  But presumably even he knows scheduled 747 service is not likely. Photo: Rick Sforza, staff photographer.

When San Bernardino International Airport started showing off its new more than $20 million international arrivals building last month, some airline industry analysts questioned the value of the new facility.

The airport, the former Norton Air Force Base, already had a domestic terminal. But that existing terminal accommodates no regularly scheduled commercial flights, so experts were quoted as saying they wonder whether the airport actually needed a new building international arrivals building.

I spoke this week with AJ Wilson, the airport’s executive director. He has read the criticism, such as in this KPCC radio piece, but Wilson said he is undeterred. The flights will come, he promises.

“I don’t feel that I need to argue with any so-called experts,” Wilson said. “We are carrying out a plan to market our airport and that’s what we intend to do.”

What’s this plan, you ask?

Like just about every airport head, Wilson wants to wow airline executives and persuade them to start flights in San Bernardino. He would not tell me which airlines he has spoken with, but he suggested that he understands that major and mid-major airlines — American, United, Southwest, Delta, Alaska, Virgin America and Jetblue — are probably off limits.

That leaves low cost carriers like Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier in the United States, and probably Volaris and Interjet in Mexico. But even those will be difficult to attract, especially since there’s another struggling airport nearby — L.A. Ontario International Airport — seeking the same type of tenants. Ontario recently attracted Volaris. 

“We are doing fine,” Wilson said. “We are having discussions with a number of airlines. It’s simply a matter of when the market is ready and airline business plans are able to consider service. We are just in those preliminary discussions.”

There has been some discussion that the fees charged to airlines at Ontario airport, which is about 23 miles away, are too high. Presumably, San Bernardino’s costs to airlines would be lower. But Wilson said it is too early to know what the cost structure would be for a new market entrant in San Bernardino.

“That’s not necessarily even determined at this point,” Wilson said. “We will work out business deals with the people when there are greater in-depth discussions.”

The good news, Wilson said, is that the general aviation portion of the airport is flourishing.

“Everybody thinks an airport is only passenger service,” Wilson said. “Last year was our highest year ever in number of operations. We are ahead of that by about 10 percent this year. We are experiencing growth.”

Here, a picture of the domestic terminal. Photo: Rick Sforza.

Here, a picture of the domestic terminal. Photo: Rick Sforza.

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Pictures: Take a peek inside San Bernardino International Airport

As we mentioned earlier today, San Bernardino International Airport finished construction of a new $20 million international arrivals building. It was built even though the existing facility doesn’t have a single scheduled commercial flight. And of course, there’s another underused airport – L.A/Ontario — 23 miles away.

Staff photographer Rick Sforza took some photos of the airport. They’re worth a look, if only to see a photo of a retired American Airlines 727. (Photos above are the domestic terminal, while photos below are the international one.)

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Have you ever heard of San Bernardino International Airport?

A rendering of the U.S. Customs facility at San Bernardino International Airport. Credit: J.R. Miller and Associates.

A rendering of the U.S. Customs facility at San Bernardino International Airport. Credit: J.R. Miller and Associates.

San Bernardino International Airport near Los Angeles unveiled its brand new, $20.5 million international terminal last week.

This is not a joke.

An airport you’ve probably never heard of — one without a single scheduled airline now serving it — is dreaming big. (If you have heard of the airport, it might be because its former developer faced conspiracy charges related to construction.) San Bernardino’s airport is located about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles and 23 miles east of L.A./Ontario International Airport, which is having its own problems attracting passengers.

My colleague Joe Nelson described San Bernardino’s new building like this:

The 40,000-square-foot, three-story terminal features entry via a jet bridge that should be arriving at the airport within the next two weeks, said A.J. Wilson, the airport’s executive director. It also includes a spacious passenger area, a baggage claim carousel area, administrative offices on two floors, agricultural and customs inspections stations, detention and interview rooms, and a computer and communications center.

Perhaps there’s some opportunity to attract more general aviation tenants, but I’m a bit confused at why San Bernardino thinks it needed a $20.5 million international terminal. Nelson’s story suggests the airport will try first with commercial flights to Mexico, but let’s remember that Ontario airport has tried the same approach, with very limited success.

Another of my colleagues, Jim Steinberg, wrote a follow-up story quoting skeptical experts.

“What market niche are they (SBIA) trying to fill?” John J. Keady, president of Playa del Ray-based Keady Transportation Consulting told Steinberg. Keady said there is no “unseen latent groundswell of demand” that the new terminal will serve.

But San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris told Steinberg he is optimistic.

“What we have to offer is a new articulation…with a state-of -the-art, high-tech terminal,” Morris said. “This has to be attractive to international carriers as an end destination.”

If you’re wondering, San Bernardino International Airport is the former Norton Air Force Base, which closed in 1994. It has a single 10,000 foot long runway.

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