Fight brews over San Jose airport height limits: “Are we willing to sacrifice safety?”
Mineta San Jose International Airport is pictured (courtesy of Mineta San Jose International Airport).

In the fight to accelerate economic growth by developing taller buildings in downtown, San Jose is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

On one side, leaders from the city and its public airport are pushing hard to raise building height limits up to 35 feet from the current limits in the downtown core and up to 137 feet in the Diridon Station area, home of the proposed Google mega-campus. The higher limits are approved by the FAA, city officials said. On the other side, the city’s airport commission, which includes a commercial pilot, are sounding the alarm. They say raising building heights poses serious safety risks and could lead to international flights fleeing San Jose.

Those are the highly-coveted flights San Jose spent millions of dollars recruiting — offering incentives, fee waivers and free marketing. And the potential loss of airline service doesn’t bode well for an airport strapped with debt from a $1.5 billion expansion — all in an effort to attract new airlines and brand itself as an international hub, free from the shadows of competing Oakland and San Francisco airports.

Plan rejected by city commission

San Jose’s 10-member Airport Commission rebuffed the city plan at its Thursday meeting, voting 5-3 not to recommend the city’s proposal. Instead, the commissioners voted 5-3 to recommend an alternate plan which makes no changes to the downtown height limits but allows an increase of up to 56 feet above the current limits in the Diridon Station area.

“You can’t blame developers for building as high as possible because they want to make money,” said Dan Connolly, chairman of the city’s Airport Commission. “But by doing this we believe it eliminates a safety cushion when an aircraft has an emergency. We don’t have open ocean like they do in Oakland or San Francisco. Are we willing to sacrifice safety to raise building heights?”

When airplanes depart from Mineta San Jose International Airport, the majority take off away from downtown and the building heights aren’t a concern. But in about 15 percent of flights, usually because of bad weather or a shift in winds, flights take off toward downtown — that’s called “south flow.”

It’s during those scenarios that airplanes need to have enough space for emergency landings in case one engine fails. And while some say those engine failure instances are rare, others contend that the outcome could be catastrophic if a plane needs to land and cannot do so because of tall buildings.

“There are numerous examples of airplanes that have taken off with one engine and plowed into buildings and killed people on the plane and on the ground,” said Commissioner Raymond Greenlee, a commercial airline pilot. “As a professional pilot, I find it almost repugnant that they would eliminate the airspace we have today just so the developers can build taller in the Diridon Station.”

The only way around the issue, according to Greenlee, is reducing the airplane’s weight by getting rid of passengers, fuel or cargo. On long international flights, airlines can’t reduce fuel — so they’re forced to bump passengers off flights. Reducing passengers on the plane makes it less economical for airlines to keep service in San Jose, leading to the possibility of losing flights to Asia, part of Europe and even the East Coast.

After years of steady growth, San Jose lost Air China and Lufthansa in recent years. Tal Muscal, a spokesman for Lufthansa, told San José Spotlight that the airline left San Jose “due to economic reasons” and does not envision reopening the route anytime soon.

Economic development vs. airline safety

The status quo is hurting the city’s economic development, top city leaders said.

Airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said allowing taller buildings encourages developers to add more square footage of usable work and living space on the same amount of land. 

“This increase in density provides economic benefits to San Jose residents and businesses by increasing the number of people who can live and work in Downtown,” Barnes said, “which translates into more foot traffic past local businesses, more downtown area spending, and the ability to add more, and much-needed housing.”

Maintaining existing building height limits and airspace protections “would prevent San Jose from maximizing the development of its urban core, which is a fundamental principal of the Envision 2040 General Plan, without significant gains to airport or airline operations,” said a joint memo from economic director Kim Walesh, aviation director John Aitken and planning director Rosalynn Hughey.

Though the push to build taller in downtown appears to be prompted by the new Google development, city officials also explored raising height limits in 2007.

Barnes said the effect on East Coast, European and Hawaiian flights will be “minimal,” but that certain flights headed to Asia might need to operate with fewer passengers. Leaders are creating a community fund, which will be available by 2024, to offset potential airline economic losses.

The plan goes to the city’s Community and Economic Development Committee on Monday before the full City Council. Councilman Johnny Khamis, who chairs the committee, said he shares some of the safety concerns, but also wants to ensure airlines don’t leave San Jose. The airline carriers are currently negotiating another 10-year contract with the San Jose airport.

“We’ve been experiencing a huge growth in the airport and I don’t want that to go away,” Khamis said Friday. “I want to hear from the airlines themselves that this is a workable plan. That would make me feel much more comfortable.”

Contact Ramona at ramona@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

Editor’s note: Story has been updated to include response from Mineta San Jose International Airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes.

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