It began as the most modest of airports — passengers trudged across the tarmac to climb aboard departing jets, a double-wide served as a terminal and on weekends, drag races were held in the parking lots.
And even as John Wayne Airport grew into a larger regional transit hub, offering scores of flights each day since the late 1960s, its growth was stunted by its short runways and a cap on how many passengers could pass through the terminal gates.
But the addition of two flights to Mexico that began this week — in addition to flights to Canada that began recently —has given international status to Orange County's only commercial airport.
"It takes John Wayne Airport to the next level," said Jenny Wedge, an airport spokeswoman.
Daily flights to Mexico City and Cabo San Lucas on AirTran Airways, a smaller airline owned by Southwest Airlines, began Sunday, joining flights to Calgary and Vancouver.
Wedge said the international flights will hopefully draw in more flyers to the airport, which has seen its passenger figures fall from a peak of 9.9 million in 2007 to 8.6 million last year.
She said the flights will attract two crowds: Cabo will pull in the tourists and the party-minded, while Mexico City will appeal to Orange County's Latino community.
And so far, flights have been mostly full.
On Tuesday, Melinda Waechter, 29, was checking in for the noon flight to Cabo. Her group was headed to the tip of Baja for a friend's wedding.
"It's an excellent option to come here rather than go through that mess," she said, referring to Los Angeles International Airport.
She was among many who were pleased to have an alternative. It's closer to home, for one. And it's in a gleaming new terminal that opened last November, filled with glass, sand-colored tile and sunlight — the third terminal at the airport.
One of Waechter's traveling companions marveled at how clean and new the airport appeared, and another complimented the friendly workers. "They're the ones that make the trip enjoyable," said Bryan Mann, 31.
Although there was a line for security, checking in was as breezy as the beach in Cabo.
Rather than a bottleneck, the ropes were nothing more than a simple maze for flyers to pass through on the way to the ticket counter, which had been decked out for the occasion with balloons and, of course, a sombrero.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times