SEATTLE – When San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia made his State of the City speech on June 15, he proclaimed that the city “is strong fiscally for the first time in many, many years.”

At the heart of that economic turnaround after a decade of austerity and budget cuts, the mayor said, is the Amazon Air Regional Air Hub, which occupies nearly 700,000- square feet of space at the former Norton Air Force Base. The hub is expected to bring 7,000 jobs to the region. Valdivia called Amazon’s decision to set up its regional base here “a boon to the economy” and the largest development ever at San Bernardino International Airport (SBD).

“Our San Bernardino International Airport is rapidly expanding operations and creating a sustainable, vibrant economic foundation that will benefit our city for decades to come,” the mayor said in his pre-recorded speech.

However, not everyone agrees. Leading up to Amazon’s decision, there were protests at a local Amazon fulfillment center and a contentious public meeting where critics of the plan said they weren’t interested in more low-paying jobs without benefits.

The Spencer Debacle

The San Bernardino economy has struggled for years, and a high-profile corruption scandal involving the San Bernardino International Airport Authority (SBIAA) that dragged on for a good chunk of this century has sullied the airport authority’s reputation, making a comeback hard for many to imagine.

SBD has been criticized for years for sitting idle and underused. The scandal surrounding Scot Spencer, an airline executive charged in 2013 with conspiracy to steal US$175m in public money while working at SBD, has weighed heavily on the airport. Spencer eventually pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges unrelated to SBD, and the rest of the charges against him were dropped, but the damage to SBD was done.

The airport’s board of commissioners had given Spencer millions of dollars in contracts to manage the facility in the early 2000s. Those contracts were issued to Spencer despite the commission knowing that he had been convicted of felony fraud in 1996. The best that could be said about the board managing the SBD at the time was that it was a textbook case of sheer incompetence. But many people felt the rot went beyond mere incompetence and bordered on illegality.

Despite that ugly recent history, the long road to rebuild SBD’s reputation has taken some positive turns of late, and none is bigger than Amazon’s decision to locate its regional air hub here.

Runway Rehabilitation Project

The seeds for this Amazon announcement were planted in late 2019 when a US$200m air cargo facility was approved unanimously by the SBIAA. The passage came just days before a new state law was set to take effect that would have made local agencies divulge details of new distribution centers before the authority could vote on them.

Though some groups cried foul, the airport authority charged ahead with its plans, slowed only by the pandemic. Today, as the region and the nation begin to come back from the year-plus shutdown, the airport is abuzz with activity.

The SBIAA passed a resolution in March to provide information to the government on its Runway Rehabilitation Project in hopes of getting some government funding. Congressman Pete Aquilar asked for the extra information to see if the project would qualify for full government support. If it qualifies, the airport would get funding from the federal government’s Community Projects Program to cover the costs of maintaining its runway.

The 10,000-foot runway and jet bridges at SBD can accommodate any size aircraft, including a Boeing 747.

SBD also became the 252nd member of the Contract Tower Program this spring, a move that means the federal government pays the labor costs of running the control tower, saving SBD about US$600,000 annually.  This became possible because the FAA has seen a noticeable uptick in traffic at the airport.

Even the signage has been getting updated at SBD. A new sign made from the vertical stabilizer and rudder of a Boeing 737-500 indicates where the UPS and Fedex at the airport are. The Boeing tail was donated by aircraft recycler Unival Aviation.

Norton Air Force Base

SBD has a history that dates back to 1941 when Norton Air Force Base opened as a municipal airport managed by the US Army. Pilots trained there, and not too long after the airport was opened, it became a base for fighter planes in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Those fighter planes braced for an attack on Los Angeles, which never came.

In 1942, the airport, which is just two miles east of downtown San Bernardino, changed its name to San Bernardino Army Airfield. This was also home to the San Bernardino Air Depot, where aircraft were repaired and maintained. Later the depot specialized in gas turbines and then jet engines.

Norton Air Force Base officially closed in 1994 after a decades-long effort to clean up chemical waste and protect groundwater on the site.

Today, the former air force base consists of a thriving business complex that employs several thousand people in the areas of logistics, distribution, aviation, and manufacturing. The non-aviation portion of the airport grounds is run by the Inland Valley Development Agency (IVDA), which was formed in 1990 with elected officials from the County of San Bernardino and the cities of San Bernardino, Colton, Highland, and Loma Linda.

AllianceCalifornia and Amazon

A public-private partnership between Hillwood and the IVDA called AllianceCalifornia has helped SBD blossom as an air cargo hub. It has brought 12,645 new jobs to the area, according to SBD, as well as such well-known brands as Trader Joe’s, Kohls, PepsiCo., Mattel, and, of course, Amazon.  SBD expects the new alliance with Amazon to bring in 1,700 new jobs this year for pilots, aircraft services, and logistics.

A closer look at the Amazon cargo hub shows the nearly 700,000 square feet of space in the main building is supplemented by two 25,000-square-foot maintenance buildings, 41 acres of new aircraft ramp, about 2,000 employee parking spaces and 380 trailer parking spaces, road and landscape improvements, and capacity for 12 daily flights in the first year ramping up to 26 daily flights by year five, by which time the project is expected to have produced 3,900 new jobs.

The Amazon hub is also using enough solar power to operate 1,000 homes and employing electrically powered machinery such as cargo loaders, tugs, forklifts, aircraft power units, and electric vehicles.

Luxury Travel

While expansion of the distribution business has been the focus of SBD, an ancillary project that is  beginning to find traction now that vaccines are readily available and people are traveling again is refueling and first-class services and amenities for corporate travelers.

Luxivair SBD is the airport’s equivalent of a five-star hotel property with first-class meeting rooms, marbled bathrooms, and even fresh-baked cookies served on arrival. This is the airport’s attempt to be an attractive refueling stop for corporate clients.

There’s a pilot’s lounge, a theater with leather recliners so tired travelers can take in a movie in surround sound on a 72”-wide TV screen, a flight-planning room with Internet access and computers, an outdoor lounge, a gym, and even a comfortable place to take a nap. Clients can host events and receptions here as well.

When you land at Luxivair SBD, concierge staff awaits you and your guests. You can relax in the Luxivair  facilities while your aircraft is refueled or serviced, or you can hop on a shuttle to an area hotel.

Luxivair has kept its landing fees low to encourage more traffic. In fact, SBD says they are the lowest anywhere in southern California. Rates haven’t changed in 20 years: Clients with a maximum landing weight (MLW) over 12,500 pounds pay just US$1 per 1,000 pounds. Those under the MLW land for free. “Now more than ever, our customers need to know they can rely on Luxivair SBD to help keep their costs down,” said FBO Manager Wendy Bechtel.

Luxivair also started using a contactless payment system called PlanePass this April. The automated payment system from Vector Airport Systems automatically captures airport IDs, calculates fees, and bills operators, who pay via a self-service portal. 

SBD allows private aircraft to sidestep the crowded LA skies and land at one of the most reasonably priced regional airports in the state, and it seems that more and more charter flights are taking that option.

An LCC Airport

SBD also bills itself as a convenient and low-cost commercial airport for people traveling to and from southern California (the airport is a short drive from Los Angeles and Palm Springs) and onto Mexico or Canada. The airport has 150,000 square feet of space in its domestic and international terminals and can handle 350 passengers an hour at the international terminal. Even the overnight parking, at US$5 or US$6 a day, is a bargain.

Will SBD be able to thrive in the post-pandemic economy? While the local economy has struggled mightily recently, there are hopeful signs for the airport. Its low cost, first-class amenities and burgeoning cargo services make SBD an attractive option for businesses and travelers alike. But so many questions persist as the nation pulls out of 15 months of shutdown.

One reason to bet on the Inland Empire’s expanded distribution business, and thus, the airport, is the surge in online shopping that has occurred during the pandemic. While online shopping numbers may not continue to rise at the rate they have over the last year or so, it’s a good bet that consumer habits have changed, and we’ll never go back completely to our brick-and-mortar shopping past.

That makes the location of the new Amazon air hub at SBD a reason to see a glimmer of hope in the airport’s future.

Featured image and all photos: Tom Harris/Airways