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New Battle Over Airport Restrictions Looms
March 25, 2011
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  • By Rachana Rathi
    March 21, 2011

    Residents, city leaders and county officials are gearing up for the next battle over restrictions on John Wayne Airport.

    A landmark 1985 federal court settlement restricting operations at the airport expires in 2015, and discussions on an extension are expected to begin this spring.

    While most parties involved say they don’t expect the negotiations to be as contentious as those in the past, officials know it will be a closely watched issue.

    “I want you to know working on the new airport agreement will be my top priority,” County Supervisor John Moorlach said to members of the Airport Working Group, a citizens group that monitors John Wayne Airport’s adherence to use and noise restrictions, during its annual meeting earlier this month.

    “Solvency is somewhere below that,” he added to laughs.

    A Rare Victory

    The restrictions on John Wayne Airport are among the most stringent in the country. Other cities have tried and failed to achieve even modest concessions.

    Almost immediately after the modern terminal was built in 1967, John Wayne Airport faced neighborhood opposition. The county had to add acoustical insulation in 400 homes and purchase 40 buildings and convert them to business use.

    When county supervisors approved an airport expansion in 1985, the legal battle between the county and residents escalated. Late that year, a lawsuit against the county by the city of Newport Beach and two community groups was settled in federal court.

    The settlement agreement limited flight noise, capped passenger volume and restricted the airport’s size. The agreement allowed operations from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; capped the number of flights at 73 daily departures; and capped passenger volume at 8.4 million.

    Federal legislation soon ended the legality of such strong local control. In 1990, Congress passed the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, a bill prohibiting cities from reducing or limiting aircraft operations without approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

    The FAA approved an extension of the agreement in 2003 because John Wayne’s 1985 court settlement predated the 1990 law.

    In 2003, the original parties to the court settlement – Newport Beach, the county, the Airport Working Group and Stop Polluting Our Newport – agreed to extend the settlement until 2015.
    The extension allowed for the number of gates at the airport to increase from 14 to 20; the maximum number of commercial flights to increase from 73 to 85 per day; and the number of cargo flights to double to four a day.

    In addition, the extension maintained restrictions on noise levels; paved the way for the construction of a third terminal wing (expected to open late this year); and allowed a nearly 30 percent increase in annual passengers to 10.8 million.

    The FAA concluded that plans for expanding John Wayne while maintaining local noise controls were consistent with federal law because they would not limit airport operations or affect aircraft safety.

    Into the Future

    John Wayne is not expected to handle 10.8 million passengers until 2022, according to FAA projections. Some officials say this bolsters the case for a simple extension of the agreement for another 15 to 20 years.

    A survey of the Airport Working Group’s approximately 8,000 members revealed that their primary concerns remain the same: maintaining the curfew, a cap on flights and restricting noise levels.

    The curfew is already in place through 2020. But Tony Khoury, president of the Airport Working Group, says he and other members hope it can be extended further in the upcoming discussions.

    In 2001, about 7.2 million passengers flew from the Orange County airport. The number rose to 10 million in 2007, before coming back down to 8.7 million in 2010.

    Despite the downturn, a recent FAA report says U.S. airlines will double their business in the next 20 years, putting greater pressure on all airports.

    Referring to a local citizens group’s slogan, “10.8 and Shut the Gate,” Moorlach said, “That would be a nice goal, but we also need to be realistic.”

    He added that it is critical that residents and officials are “careful not to irritate the FAA,” which is a major stakeholder.

    Airport director Alan Murphy said “the FAA really will look to the carriers,” which are “the true enemy” to those seeking to extend the restrictions.

    The city, county and citizens groups are aligned in their expectations, said Murphy, but the airlines have a different point of view and may look to loosen the current limits.

    He pointed to the passenger cap as an example. Local residents suggest lowering the annual passenger limit to reflect the downturn in airline traffic from John Wayne. An airline official looked at the same figures, Murphy said, and suggested, “Well, maybe we don’t need a cap anymore.”

    The airport is currently negotiating airline carrier leases and expects to have those completed before discussions on extending the settlement agreement begin.

    “We do have a good relationship with the carriers,” Murphy said. “And I hope that continues.”
    As a whole, officials said they are optimistic about extending the agreement favorably, if for no other reason than the size and location of the airport.

    “It is very small,” Murphy said. “At some point, you just cannot do anymore.”

    Date: 2011-03-21