'Bluefield' development: should we put our airports out to sea?

Floating a modest proposal that will make unlimited room for cramped airports.

A friend from San Diego recently told me how the city was coming up with various schemes to expand or rebuild is cramped airport -- including building a larger facility two hours out in the desert, connected to civilization by a high-speed rail link that will cut through the mountains. Isn't there a better way?

We could wait for commercial aircraft to be built on vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) technology. But that has a long way to go for big jets -- so we're going to need mile-long runways for some time to come.

Perhaps the sea offers a place for commercial aircraft. We all know that our major airports are congested, but with little room to grow. Japan -- a very densely congested island -- already has four floating airports under construction. Hong Kong has already shown that we build runways out at sea.  And now, an interesting proposal has emerged that San Diego should build its own floating airport.

Adam Englund, a local lawyer with a fascination for floating cities, is pushing the $20-billion idea. He proposes that the city build "a giant oil rig-style floating platform permanently moored 10 or so miles off the coast of San Diego. It would be three square miles and afford plenty of room for two long and very safe runways."

The idea of such a facility was actually floated (pun intended) back in 2002. One of the original designers, FloatPort Inc., cites several advantages over terra-based airports:

FloatPort would be an improvement over most of our nation's airports.

  • Less noise pollution: "Takeoffs and landings would all be over water affecting no populated areas, thereby virtually eliminating noise pollution and substantially reducing aircraft accident risks. The airport could operate 24 hours per day without impact on populated areas."
  • More easily expandable: "Unlike land based airports, growth and alterations in configuration would be relatively easy to achieve."
  • More environmentally friendly: "Compared to a land based alternative, FloatPort would be environmentally benign."
  • More secure: "Unlike a land based airport, the floating airport is surrounded by ocean which is easier to patrol. This will greatly reduce the risk of terrorist attack by shoulder-fired missile."

Jebediah Reed reports that Englund and his partners, part of a consortium called Euphlotea, "have even put in a first-of-its-kind claim with federal government for 'airport rights' to a 40,000-square-mile swath of the Pacific." They suggest that passengers can be whisked between the mainland and the facility either via rail tunnels or by high-speed ferries. The only sticking point: the US Department of the Interior, which has jurisdiction over the waters off the US coasts, has held up licensing the project.

Reed calls it "Bluefield" development. Since the world is 70% ocean, such projects represent smart thinking for managing the challenges of managing population and city growth. And sometimes it takes visionaries such as Englund who can think differently and boldly pull together the resources to move these ideas forward. Of course, the floating airport idea may not be possible for inland cities, but perhaps some visionaries will step forward with new approaches.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com