Is Carlsbad Airport poised for a commercial comeback?

Perhaps Cal Jet’s new service to Las Vegas was the up-gauged kick-start Carlsbad’s McClellan-Palomar Airport north of San Diego needed to get back in the commercial aviation game. A new Master Plan for the airport came out earlier this month and it includes a couple interesting notes suggesting that the field could soon see a return to scheduled service from larger airlines. That could be a boon to North County and the airport’s operations; the last network carrier-connected service was from United Airlines‘ regional operations in 2015.

Perhaps even more surprising is that the planned resumption of service looks to be on larger aircraft. The EMB-120s of yore are no longer the aircraft of choice for operations at Palomar, at least not for the airlines. Cal Jet (by Elite Airways) operates a CRJ-700 for its daily trip to Las Vegas and the proposed new service may also come on a similarly sized aircraft. Here’s what the Master Plan has to say about that potential:

At the time this forecast was prepared, Cal Jet by Elite Airways was in operation and two new airlines, with established main line carrier connections and different business plans have requested resumption of operations from the Airport. One airline has a current agreement necessary to start operations and San Diego-Transportation Security Administration (SAN-TSA) has formally committed to providing FSROR [screening services] within the next month.  …

Airline #1 has stated their desire to commence service to multiple destinations right away upon start of service. This forecast does not include the full operational capacity the new airline anticipates with a total of 14 departures per day until 2024 to allow gradual growth as the start-up operations attract passengers.

Put another way, at least one new entrant carrier is expected to bring 64-seat aircraft to Carlsbad in significant volume – potentially 12 daily flights to multiple destinations – in the very near future. Then again, the report predicted that the service would commence in 2017 and that date already slipped, so maybe not.

Still, even the potential for such service is intriguing. The most likely contender based on proposed aircraft size, destinations and frequencies would appear to be Alaska Airlines. The report uses a 64-seat aircraft in its passenger count projections but no carrier appears to be operating that configuration in the US market today. Getting a ~76 seat plane in to service is viable and the airport supports the CRJ-700 or E175 with the current layout.

A wing view from my last flight out of Carlsbad on an Embraer EMB-120.
A wing view from my last flight out of Carlsbad on an Embraer EMB-120. Bigger planes are likely to be the driving force in the next round of operations at the airport.

Alaska Airlines has the most potential west coast options to meet the multiple destinations factor. Service to Seattle, Portland and San Francisco would be easy to justify. Maybe even San Jose or Oakland could work. Sure, Southwest has way more options from San Diego or Orange County (SNA) but both of those require significant time driving on I-5. Avoiding that drive is the key to Carlsbad’s marketing pitch to airlines and passengers. [Note that the report refers to Carlsbad (CLD) as “CRQ” for FAA reasons.]

CRQ could focus on short-haul markets such as LAX, PHX, LAS, OAK, SJC, and SMF, relieving pressure on SAN so that it could focus on longer-haul demand. The increase in enplanements and operations envisioned in this scenario would reflect an alleviation of congestion at SAN through the entry of new airline service at CRQ. It is anticipated that, if the initial airlines are successful, that these conditions would allow a potential third airline to operate from CRQ in the long-term (10+ years) horizon.

A second airline expected to operate 30-seat aircraft sounds an awful lot like American Airlines coming back to the airport with Dash 8-100 service to its Phoenix hub. US Airways operated that route earlier in the decade.

Also interesting in the report is a suggestion that the runway be lengthened to allow for slightly larger aircraft to operate at Carlsbad. It notes that many larger private jets today must refuel elsewhere after departing CLD to realize their full range. Such an extension could also open up operations for the CSeries and its quieter noise profile. Of course, that runway extension is a $70mm project scoped for 10+ years out according to the plan. Then again, it is also unclear that the CSeries will operate for a US carrier given the tariff battle.

Oh, and the only runway needs to be renamed from 6-24 to 7-25 because of magnetic drift.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. You can put me down as one Carlsbad resident who really, really wants commercial service to resume out of Carlsbad.

  2. One of the worse problems in Carlsbad is our traffic. While the Robinson Ranch develpment of several hundred homes was being built on El Camino near Kelly Dr the traffic, roads and therefore, car damage, got much worse. There were many delays.

    Soon there will be over 250 homes built across the street at Marja Acres where The Country Store & Bobby’s Hideaway have been for a very long time. Currently being built is Uptown Bressi (to include retail & over 200 apartments) between Palomar Airport Rd and Gateway (near Trader Joes).

    How many cars will this transfer to Carlsbad city streets from all parts of San Diego & maybe even Orange and Riverside County by increasing commercial flights out of McClellan-Palomar Airport Rd.?

    Who will pay for the damaged roads? Who will pay for the damaged suspensions on our cars due to the additional potholes on our surface streets?

  3. The RJ7 is a 69-seat aircraft. The RJ9 and E175 are 76-seat aircraft. Alaska’s subsidiary Horizon would, no doubt, be operating the DASH8 (BQ4) out of Carlsbad, which Is a 76-seat aircraft.

    1. That depends on Horizon getting its act together and stabilizing operations. Failing that the work could go to SkyWest and the E75s. The routes are long enough that the faster cruise speed matters and they’re really much more comfortable aircraft as a passenger as currently configured/operating.

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