FAA Approval Seen for Compromise on John Wayne Airport

Times Staff Writer

The Federal Aviation Administration is prepared to approve a compromise expansion plan for John Wayne Airport, ending years of conflicts with the federal government over operation of the airport, federal officials said this week.

The decision, scheduled to become final within the next week, represents a significant shift for an agency that has repeatedly clashed with Orange County officials in court--nearly always successfully--over the county’s attempts to limit jet traffic at the airport.

After a meeting here this week, attorneys for Newport Beach, Orange County, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Justice Department said they have reached “substantive agreement” on a settlement plan that will allow expansion of John Wayne Airport to handle 8.4 million passengers a year over the next two decades.

Can Go to Court

The tentative federal sign-off clears the way for the two local jurisdictions to submit the agreement to the federal court in the hope of concluding years of litigation over jet service at the airport.

Since passage of the federal Airline Deregulation Act in 1978--legislation designed to open the nation’s airports to more competition--the federal government has argued that Orange County’s strict regulations on the number of airlines and jet flights at John Wayne Airport violate the spirit of deregulation.


County officials, pointing to neighborhoods in Newport Beach and Santa Ana Heights plagued with jet noise, counter that the controls are needed to protect airport neighbors.

After years of litigation over the need to expand the airport to meet a growing passenger demand, Orange County reached agreement with Newport Beach last month on a settlement plan that will allow limited expansion of the airport by phasing in quieter jets and placing a cap on total passenger service.

The FAA’s approval is the last step remaining before the agreement can be submitted to the federal court as a settlement to much of the litigation over the airport.

Following their meeting this week, federal attorneys indicated that they will agree to some of the most controversial features of the settlement, including a provision for limiting the number of passengers served at the airport each year and holding the number of daily jet flights at 55 over the next few years, even while quieter new jets are being phased in.

FAA for More Flights

The FAA had earlier pushed for raising the number of jet flights, as long as the additional flights were allotted to the quieter new Boeing 737/300 or the BAe-146. The agency also has sought to expand the number of airlines serving the airport, which is restricted to nine carriers for the next several years under the current agreement.

Federal officials, in approving the agreement, have made it clear that the stringent restrictions on airport expansion are not likely to win federal approval at airports everywhere.

Orange County has been a special--and difficult--case, said one department official, who declined to be identified.

“If we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t just sort of gratuitously agree that some airport proprietor could impose a cap on the number of passengers,” he said. “As a matter of philosophy, the only basis for imposing a limit like that would be some sort of terminal constraint, or roadway constraint, or something that would present a problem from a health and safety standpoint.

“If somebody came up to us and proposed this same kind of thing in, say, Des Moines, we’d say no way. You haven’t shown us a reason to. . . . But getting back to the real world, we want to see this issue settled, and if that’s what it takes, then we’re willing to sign off on it--especially since it’s so many more passengers than are being served now.”

“We know enough about Orange County, and the history of Orange County, and the politics of Orange County, that we can say this is a pretty good deal.”

The FAA has twice gone to court in an attempt to open John Wayne Airport to increased airline service, but the new tentative agreement reflects the more cooperative relations that have existed between the county and the federal agency recently.

The agreement is not yet final because of some remaining concerns on the part of the federal government over provisions binding parties to the settlement over a 20-year period--a provision intended to assure Newport Beach residents that the airport will not face major expansion in the near future.

Federal officials are reluctant to make any commitments over a period of several years when it is not clear what policy future administrations might take on airport deregulation issues, attorneys said.

However, Orange County special airport counsel Michael Gatzke said Friday that he believes the FAA’s concerns can be worked out by adjusting the structure of the agreement.

“I think we’re on track. I think we’re working on resolving what I consider to be some minor point of form, rather than substance,” said Gatzke, who called the FAA’s preliminary approval an important step in resolving conflicts over John Wayne Airport.

“I think it is very significant that there’s been an accommodation that’s been reached between the federal interests in terms of deregulation and the local interest’s operating the airport,” he said. “I think that’s a major step.”

Steven Pflaum, attorney for Newport Beach, said the FAA’s approval “is of political, psychological and therefore practical importance” in the airport controversy.

However, attorneys on all sides are still discussing the precise terms before any final agreement is reached, Pflaum said. Gatzke estimated that a final agreement could be reached within a week.