Hoping that its new fleet of exceptionally quiet planes will entitle it to more takeoffs at John Wayne Airport, PSA has begun taking passenger reservations for an expanded flight schedule set to go into effect next month even though the airline has not yet obtained county approval for the expansion.
Tickets are being sold for the inauguration of three new PSA flights each day between Orange County and Oakland in the highly competitive and highly profitable West Coast corridor that runs from San Diego to Seattle.
If PSA gets approval for additional flights, it could set off a fierce battle between the San Diego-based airline and AirCal of Newport Beach, PSA's major competitor.
PSA has added the Orange County flights in the expectation--one several county officials consider a long shot--that the Board of Supervisors will act in time to grant its request to more than double its allowable average daily departures at John Wayne from nine to 21.
Number of Flights Limited
Because of state noise controls and numerous suits by individuals and cities affected by aircraft noise, Orange County's airport has some of the nation's tightest controls on commercial jet flights. The controls limit the number of flights and operating hours and effectively limit the types of aircraft that can use the airport by specifying maximum noise levels in residential areas around John Wayne.
PSA made its request for increased flights because its newly purchased, British-manufactured BAe 146 aircraft achieved surprisingly quiet takeoffs during test flights last February. Noise from the 85-passenger planes fell below the decibel level at which the county's flight restrictions come into play, theoretically making PSA the only airline exempt from flight ceilings at John Wayne.
The county has allowed PSA to temporarily add two more daily flights during a 90-day test period. Meanwhile, the noise produced by the BAe 146 aircraft is being monitored during regularly scheduled flights. The test will end Aug. 1, and the county will act on PSA's expansion request sometime afterward.
Hoping for Answer
"We hope to have an answer within the next couple of weeks," said Bill Hastings, PSA's director of public relations.
Another PSA representative, Margery Craig, said PSA has begun selling tickets on unapproved flights out of Orange County because of the deadline for filing schedule changes with the Official Airline Guide. The publication, which distributes flight information over a national reservation network, required schedule changes for August to be filed by July 14, she said.
If the county turns down PSA's request or fails to make a decision by early August, Craig said, PSA could cancel the extra flights or run the expanded schedule now and make offsetting flight cuts later in the year to keep within its total annual limit of flights at John Wayne Airport.
Several county officials said chances that PSA will be authorized to add flights in early August are slim because it would probably require a revision of the massive environmental impact report for the airport. Beside the noise implications of PSA's requested flight expansion, they said, the county will have to consider the potential effects on air quality, traffic and airport terminal congestion.
Revision Could Take Year
Kathleen Brady-Rebella, senior planner in the environmental and special programs division of the county's Environmental Management Agency, said that if the PSA environmental impact report needs to be revised, the job "optimistically" could take four to six months, and perhaps as long as a year.
If the county agrees--now or in the future--that the BAe 146's low noise level entitles PSA to expand its operation at John Wayne, it would give the airline a definite edge over its major competitor in the lucrative Orange County market, Newport Beach-based AirCal. PSA would wind up with 21 average daily departures in Orange County, compared to AirCal's allotment of 15.5 takeoffs per day. (AirCal has an odd number because the allotment is an annual average, meaning airlines can juggle their schedules to fly more flights than the allotted average during busy periods and fewer in slow times.)
AirCal, whose new, quiet-engined Boeing 737s have not proven as quiet as the BAe 146, has vowed that it will not sit still if PSA gets an edge on flights at John Wayne. "We cannot and will not be placed at a competitive disadvantage," said AirCal President David Banmiller, who said AirCal would consider alternative actions such as making noise-lowering modifications on its 737s or acquiring its own BAe 146 aircraft.
But PSA's decision to buy the BAe 146 could give it a competitive advantage in Orange County for a year while AirCal scrambles to catch up, Banmiller acknowledged.
PSA's decision to make the BAe 146 the workhorse of its airline fleet initially was considered a risky bet.
"We took a hell of a gamble on the 146," acknowledged Byron H. Miller, vice president of market and fleet planning at PSA, who first saw the airplane at the Paris Air Show in 1983. He added that "there was some (internal) resistance" to PSA becoming the first major airline in the world to fly the British Aerospace plane.
"We had our eyes wide open, though," Miller said. "We knew that (if the strategy works) we'd end up being the big frog in the pond."
PSA's strategy is to use the small, fuel-efficient and quiet BAe 146 jets to gain entry to smaller airfields along the "California Corridor" that are without jet service.
According to Civil Aeronautics Board passenger data, that strategy might be working. PSA flew 49.7% of the 1.7 million passengers who traveled along the California Corridor during the fourth quarter of 1984, up 4% from the previous quarter.
'Small Is Beautiful'
Airline industry analysts and observers suggest that PSA, with its "small is beautiful" philosophy, is either way ahead of the competition or flying off on its own.
Although PSA is the first major airline to tie its future to the 85-passenger BAe 146, it isn't the only airline interested in a smaller jet that can provide economical service to those smaller fields. Airline industry analysts agree that the industry needs a dependable 100-seat aircraft to provide economical service to less-populated destinations.
USAir, which will soon announce a replacement aircraft for an aging segment of its fleet, is considering the new Folker F-100 and a new version of the Boeing 737, called a 737-300. Neither was available when PSA decided to buy the BAe 146.
Although the BAe 146 was included on USAir's initial shopping list, "it simply wasn't one of the finalists," said Jack King, USAir vice president of public affairs. "The others seemed to better satisfy our particular requirements."
The BAe 146, however, seemed tailor made for PSA, Miller said, because the four-engine, short-haul plane was in production and it boasted the fuel efficiency and "good-neighbor features" of reduced noise and air pollution.
The BAe 146, a 100-seat (PSA reduced its version to 85 seats), four-engine plane, made its U.S. debut in June, 1983, when Air Wisconsin, a regional commuter based in Appleton, Wis., received the first of its six BAe 146s.