Orange County faces balancing act with John Wayne Airport plans
Orange County supervisors are confronting a dilemma at John Wayne Airport that illustrates the challenges of serving in local government: how to satisfy the demands of new, larger private planes, while also preserving a place for mom-and-pop pilots, and assuaging residents’ concerns about increased flights, noise and air pollution.
The question is how, or whether, to modernize and upgrade facilities at John Wayne that serve non-commercial aircraft, from two-seater hobby planes to pricey corporate jets. The problem is that everyone with an interest in the project is asking for different things.
Supervisors are expected to discuss the airport improvement project on May 7, following an Orange County Airport Commission meeting on May 1.
The proposed changes would replace and expand facilities that serve personal planes, helicopters and private jets – known in the industry as general aviation – but would not affect commercial airlines such as Southwest and Delta or the terminal they use.
John Wayne officials say general aviation makes up 67 percent of the airport’s annual operations, which means takeoffs and landings, but only a fraction of airport revenue; in 2018, there were 222,270 general aviation operations.
If the county goes ahead with the project, minor changes to building locations and roads would be made to meet Federal Aviation Administration standards. Also proposed are replacing and upgrading aging facilities that provide fueling, hangar space, maintenance and other services, and building a new terminal for private planes and a customs and Homeland Security screening facility for international general aviation flights.
Supervisors are set to vote on the project’s environmental report and have not approved a budget for the work.
County officials have been emphatic that it’s not an expansion of the airport, which is surrounded by homes, businesses and the ecologically sensitive Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve.
The work is needed to keep up with changes in general aviation such as larger planes, and to make more efficient use of the airport’s limited space, the county has said, and some airport users agree.
The general aviation side of John Wayne evolved rather than being planned out, so the fact that a number of long-term leases are ending makes this a great time to reconfigure operations, said Fred Fourcher, a co-founder of the 1,200-member Southern California Pilots Association.
There’s a decades-long wait list for hangar space, some of the hangars can’t fit today’s wider-wingspan aircraft, and bigger planes are kept in an area with height restrictions while smaller single-engine piston aircraft (think Pipers and Cessnas) are in an unrestricted part of the airfield, Fourcher said.
Not only that, but some of the hangars are in “a horrible state of disrepair” with peeling paint and holes in the roofs, said Scott Cutshall, an Orange County resident who learned to fly at John Wayne.
“At some point you need to rebuild.”
Some residents – particularly in Newport Beach, which has been vocal about the airport’s plans – aren’t convinced and worry that revamping the airfield would squeeze out smaller, recreational aircraft and replace them with bigger, noisier jets, some of which they argue act like commercial airlines.
Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon said she’s afraid county officials haven’t fully vetted the impacts of the change, which residents say could include more plane noise and more pollution-laden jet exhaust settling over schools, parks and homes.
But the elephant on the runway is really newer charter and plane-share businesses that may not be classified as airlines under federal rules, but that sell seats and can be booked with a few taps on a smartphone.
Commercial flights by airlines at John Wayne are governed by a unique 1985 agreement that caps the total number of passengers annually, regulates the number of gates, and outlines overnight curfews and noise limits.
General aviation flights also must follow noise regulations and risk fines for violations, but if they create less than the allowed level of noise, the airport by law can’t bar them from landing at any time.
Just one company appears to be running a commercial-type service out of John Wayne’s general aviation facilities, and its customers count toward the annual cap of 10.8 million passengers. But some residents fear it represents an opportunity waiting to be exploited – which could mean more flights and more passengers who don’t go through federal security screening in the main terminal.
“I don’t think the supervisors have done enough to understand the ramifications of what they’re going to allow,” said Julie Johnson of Citizens Against Airport Noise and Pollution. “I don’t think anyone understood Uber either, and it just grew and grew and grew.”
Meanwhile, “light general aviation” pilots like those in Fourcher’s group worry because the county’s airport plan doesn’t specify where they’ll end up after the reconfiguration.
“I think we just want to make sure there’s a balance,” Fourcher said.
Officials are trying to find a balance between what residents “have to endure” from the airport and what the aviation business community wants, airport Director Barry Rondinella told residents at an April 6 town hall on the project.
Whatever county supervisors decide will have to fit within the constraints of the settlement agreement and also follow FAA rules, which govern flight paths and don’t allow airports to restrict general aviation aside from noise rules.
That leaves residents lobbying on two fronts: the county and federal authorities, Mayor Dixon said, adding: “We’ll pursue any avenue to protect our residents and our community.”
Cutshall, the Orange County pilot, said he thinks some of the proposed changes at John Wayne would better serve current airport users rather than attract a slew of new business.
There are several competing interests, he said, but “if people work together I think there’s a way to make everyone happy.”
Orange County supervisors are expected consider the airport general aviation plan at a meeting beginning at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, May 7, in the board hearing room at 333 W. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana.