Compromise Reached on John Wayne Airport Plan

Times Staff Writers

Newport Beach, Orange County and two homeowners groups reluctantly agreed Tuesday to a compromise blueprint for the limited expansion of John Wayne Airport for the next 20 years.

As a result of the agreement, much of the legal warfare that has plagued the airport and the groups for more than a decade is expected to end, though there are still problems ahead for the airstrip that serves the state’s second-largest county.

Thomas F. Riley, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said at a ceremony in an airport hangar to sign the documents ending the court battles that the agreement was a “true compromise” in which the parties “give in some areas and get in other areas.”


Fred Forster, treasurer of the Airport Working Group of Orange County Inc., one of the two homeowners groups that opposed the original county plans to expand the airport, said “no one is particularly thrilled” by the settlement. “That’s probably a pretty good indication that this is a fair agreement,” he said.

Under the proposal, there will be more expansion of the airport than the City of Newport Beach, the Airport Working Group and the Stop Polluting Our Newport organization wanted, but less than was originally demanded by county officials and business interests.

For at least the next five years, the maximum number of passengers the airport can serve will be 4.75 million per year. After that, the maximum will be 8.4 million passengers annually until 2005. Last year the airport handled 2.8 million passengers and the county originally proposed expanding the facility so it could handle 10.24 million passengers annually.

The agreement specifies that a new terminal will be smaller than the county first proposed, have less space for passenger waiting lounges and fewer loading bridges for large aircraft.

“With this settlement, we have eliminated the threat of unbridled expansion of JWA during the 20-year term of the settlement agreement,” said Newport Beach Mayor Philip Maurer.

Barbara Lichman, executive director of the Airport Working Group, said a provision to continue the current 10 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew on air traffic was “critical to us.”


For years residents near the airport have complained about what they say is excessive aircraft noise, despite increasingly strict noise-level restrictions imposed by the county. Earlier court suits resulted in a limit on the number of daily commercial flights at the airport to 41, although that was raised to 55 earlier this year.

Monday evening, when the Newport Beach City Council ratified the agreement on a 6-1 vote, Maurer said, “For 20 years this city has suffered. It’s been under the thumb of that airport.”

The agreement maintains limits on the number of flights allowed by aircraft producing certain noise levels, but exempts quieter aircraft. The number of flights will be limited by the restrictions on how many passengers can use the airport, officials said.

The settlement was strongly opposed by McDonnell Douglas Corp., maker of the MD-80 aircraft, which is used by a majority of the seven airlines flying from John Wayne Airport.

The agreement limits daily flights by planes producing noise at the levels of the MD-80 to 39 per day for the 20-year term of the agreement, which McDonnell Douglas contends is discriminatory.

An earlier version of the settlement restricted flights of MD-80-type aircraft to 39 for the next five years and allowed 55 per day for the 15 years after that. McDonnell Douglas has vowed to continue its federal court battle against the airport, as has American Airlines, which flies the MD-80.

Hundreds of McDonnell Douglas workers turned out for Airport Commission and Board of Supervisors meetings to protest the agreement, saying it would cut into sales of the plane and could cost the jobs of thousands of workers who live in Orange County and build the aircraft at the company’s Long Beach plant.

The company said in a statement that the agreement favored “an extremely small percentage of Orange County citizens living in Newport Beach . . . to the detriment of the great majority of Orange County’s people.”

But Newport Beach residents said the airport serves all the county while bothering only their community and the unincorporated area of Santa Ana Heights with the noise and insisted that there had to be limits on the expansion and restrictions on the noise level of aircraft using the airport.

One problem the settlement did not solve is whether an additional airport will be required and, if so, where it will be located.

The four parties to the settlement agreed that the supervisors would scrap past resolutions declaring that there is no other site in the county for an airport.

Supervisor Bruce Nestande cast the sole dissenting vote against that provision Tuesday, insisting that “there isn’t a site in this community (of Orange County) for an additional major international airport” because the county has become too urbanized.

The homeowners groups and Newport Beach officials disagreed with Nestande, however. Forster, who lives under the flight path of departing aircraft, said that most people agree that “this airport cannot meet the demands of the county” for air transportation and that “there will be, some day, an additional site.”

Forster said it could take two decades or more before a new airport is built, and that by then technology may have progressed enough to make jet aircraft far quieter than today’s planes.

Donald Strauss, the only Newport Beach councilman to oppose the agreement, said the expansion will make construction of a new airport less likely.

“Once they have invested in a massive, expensive new terminal, will a new airport really be built in this county?” he asked.

At the signing ceremony, which was occasionally interrupted by the roar of jets flying overhead, Maurer omitted a portion of his speech saying that Newport Beach believes a new airport “is needed in the near future” to meet the demand for commercial air service “that everyone acknowledges even an expanded John Wayne Airport cannot satisfy.”

The mayor said he omitted the remarks to save time, not as a peace gesture to Nestande, who was also present at the ceremony. Maurer said the city’s position remains that a new airport will be needed in the future.