Orange County Business Journal
By LEONARD KRANSER
While the public’s attention was riveted on the heated political battle over El Toro a few years back, quieter actions were being taken to seal the future of the county’s existing airport.
Orange County businesses and travelers never got to vote on plans to ration seats at John Wayne Airport.
In 2001, the county Board of Supervisors certified an environmental impact report for a commercial airport at El Toro. As required by state law, the report included two non-El Toro alternatives.
The smaller of these, alternative F, was a plan for optimizing John Wayne Airport—within the airport’s current property limits—to serve 14 million annual passengers.
That was almost twice the number served during the prior year. The estimated $350 million plan included 29 commercial gates, eight commuter gates and a lengthened main runway. The night curfew would continue.
That John Wayne could handle more traffic is validated at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, where a single-runway airport on a slightly larger site with a curfew served 17.4 million passengers last year.
In 2002, as it became clearer that Orange County voters would reject the El Toro Airport proposal, the city of Newport Beach concluded a series of well-executed maneuvers to insure that John Wayne did not expand as envisioned.
With three years yet to run before the expiration of a 1985 agreement that limited airport utilization, Newport inked a deal with the county to extend restrictions on the airport until 2015.
The Board of Supervisors—with El Toro advocates Chuck Smith, Jim Silva and Cynthia Coad making up the majority—certified a new environmental impact report for John Wayne’s future. They selected the smallest growth scenario studied and voted to increase the airport’s passenger limits from 8.4 million annual passengers to 9.8 million, the first increase in 13 years.
The 2002 deal was so restrictive that the airlines serving John Wayne threatened to block it. The county gave in and amended its preferred alternative to increase the number of allowed passengers to 10.3 million through 2011 and to 10.8 million through 2015.
Any increase beyond 10.8 million passengers will require a new environmental impact report and be subject to litigation.
As a product of the 2002 agreement, John Wayne is starting work on a new terminal, bringing the number of jet loading bridges to 20—and thereby foreclosing construction of alternatives for 24 or more gates.
By using precious space to build less capacity, the $652 million “improvement project” curtails the airport’s potential to expand service.
Without more gates, it is difficult for new airlines, offering flights to new destinations, to start service at John Wayne.
Individuals on both sides of the airport discussion have questioned the economic value of spending more than half a billion dollars to provide a 300,000-square-foot terminal, so few additional gates and 2,500 additional parking spaces when there are no plans to utilize the investment to provide substantially more air travel service.
Airport management, taking its lead from the Board of Supervisors, claims that the improvements are necessary to satisfactorily accommodate the 10.8 million annual passengers allowed under the 2002 agreement. It claims that the airport is “busting at the seams.” As it stands today, it has only an 8.4 million annual passenger “design capacity.”
This is unconvincing. Efficient scheduling encourages carriers to add flights at off-peak hours.
Moreover, John Wayne’s “design capacity” was calculated more than 20 years ago, in the early 1980s. Since then, newer, larger, quieter aircraft, improved air traffic control procedures and increases in aircraft load factors—the number of seats that airlines are filling on each flight—enable airports to routinely exceed their original design capacities.
There is evidence of this at John Wayne. In both June and July, the airport served more than 900,000 passengers. It is hitting a level of service this summer that the county says it must add a third terminal to sustain.
This is despite the restrictions imposed by the 2002 agreement. Airline requests to add a million seats of passenger capacity this year were denied by the county because of the agreement. If the airport continues to operate at a rate projected to hit the passenger cap, we anticipate that airlines will be ordered to cut flights or fly with more empty seats to stay under the agreement’s limits.
I never advocated physical expansion of John Wayne, just utilization of what we have. If there is no intent to increase flights to more destinations, why spend the money?
Now, Orange County is in a box. On one hand, voters rejected an El Toro airport, in part because they expected John Wayne to grow and keep up with the county’s growing population.
On the other hand, the county gave up its chance to maximize utilization of John Wayne by extending its agreement with Newport Beach until 2015 and commencing to fill up the available space at the airport with what may not be the optimally designed terminal.
Constraining airport noise impacts on the neighbors is an understandable goal for Newport Beach and county officials. But there are competing goals such as fully utilizing any investment in infrastructure to serve the broader public’s need for air transportation.
Some of today’s supervisors may still be in office when Newport Beach again asks to extend the settlement agreement. We can only hope that they will look at the demand for air travel capacity and balance the competing pressures regarding use of the airport.
Kranser is founder and editor of eltoroairport.org, which follows news and developments at Southland airports.
John Wayne, El Toro
Leonard Kranser is right about one thing in his call to arms to the business community about John Wayne Airport—Orange County is in a box with a shortfall of future airport capacity ("Rationing Seats at John Wayne," Aug. 20).
He is wrong about El Toro's alternative F, which would cram 14 million annual passengers into one runway at John Wayne. Alternative F requires removal of all private aviation at John Wayne now heavily used by the business community.
There is a solution to Kranser's dilemma. He can join forces with the city of Irvine and the housing developers to open the much-needed already-planned El Toro International Airport.
Based on other airports in the area, each runway will bring in $1 billion per year. The airlines just love the fuel-saving cross runways at El Toro. And nobody is in the noise zone at El Toro.
Kranser is right about demand but he is wrong about alternative F, which deletes general aviation.