Sunday, April 9, 2006 Airport holds the whole world in its plans THEY WILL COME: Palm Springs hopes to attract more international flights by building a new terminal. By KIMBERLY PIERCEALL The Riverside (CA) Press-Enterprise Palm Springs International Airport aims to make the "international" portion of its name more relevant. Airport officials are drafting details for a five-year, multimillion-dollar expansion project which would add an international terminal, expand the ticketing counter and build a new facility that would screen for explosives. In total, the project may cost about $46 million, but details are unavailable, said Director of Aviation Richard Walsh. The international initiative, which stems from the airport's master plan approved in 2003, still needs to be approved by Palm Springs City Council and receive Federal Aviation Administration funding. "This proposal simply paints a face to that," Walsh said, referring to the master plan. Currently the only international travel to the airport is seasonal Canadian flights. Airport officials hope that the new terminal will attract additional international carriers. The Coachella Valley's permanent population has grown from a little more than 300,000 in 2000 to close to 400,000 in 2005, and the number of air passengers traveling to and from Palm Springs has surpassed the rates posted before 9/11, reaching a record-breaking 203,244 passengers in March 2005. "It certainly justifies an expansion," said Larry Spicer, vice chairman of the airport commission. Despite larger airline carriers suffering financially nationwide, officials at Palm Springs Airport trust that demand has nowhere to go but up at the regional facility. "It's not only attributable to the tourists and the snowbirds that come in, but we're getting people year-round," said airport commission Chairman Bob Elsner. "We need to service them." The airport has already paid, in part, to accommodate bigger crowds recently approving a $9.2 million contract to Harbor Construction to build an eight-gate domestic terminal replacing four 12-year-old temporary gates. The airport also spent $3 million to expand its recently reopened security-checkpoint system. "It was getting tough on weekends with people stacking up," said Spicer, but the airport's security officials said wait times have dropped 64 percent over last year to an average of four to five minutes. "Try and get that at LAX or even Ontario," he said. Despite population growth, the airport still struggles with its image as a seasonal resort with ghost-town summers. "The market is changing, and most people would think 'that's that winter-resort area,' " said economist Jack Keyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Agency. But the market is maturing with traveling baby boomers settling in the Coachella Valley and new attractions such as tribal casinos giving people a reason to fly in, Keyser said. While LAX's flight numbers have remained flat, he said, outlying airports such as Ontario International, Long Beach Airport and Palm Springs International are selling more seats. At the same time some larger airlines are hemorrhaging financially, low-cost airlines are adding more destinations, and in the case of JetBlue Airways, adding new regional-sized jets. "Palm Springs would be a rather attractive market for Jet Blue," said Keyser. The airport is constantly aiming for more direct flights, especially the nonexistent nonstop trip between Palm Springs and New York, Elsner said. But the airport can't welcome new airlines without a terminal to house them. "Only so much can be done on the international side until we know a facility is coming," said former Deputy Director of Aviation Bryant Francis, who recently took a job in Detroit. "What we can literally go after and accommodate today is domestic and pre-cleared Canadian flights." Elsner expects the international terminal will be a magnet for charter jets from Europe before attracting regular commercial airliners. "We're not going to build buildings that will stand empty," he said. Attached Photo: Palm Springs International Airport had a record-breaking 203,244 passengers in March 2005. Officials want an international terminal.