Serious doubts have surfaced about whether the Federal Aviation Administration can successfully carry out a controversial study of commercial aviation at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in the time allowed for the study.
The study, ordered by Congress last month, is scheduled to begin within two weeks and must be completed by March 31, an FAA spokesman in Washington said Wednesday.
In Orange County, however, local and military officials said the FAA won't have time to do much more than review existing reports on the practicality of opening the 6,200-acre El Toro airfield to commercial jet service.
A similar FAA report in 1983 determined that it was "technically infeasible" for commercial and military aircraft to jointly use the sprawling El Toro base, which is positioned between the city of Irvine and the Santa Ana Mountains.
El Toro is one of three military bases the FAA will examine for possible use by commercial passenger carriers. The studies were authorized in an omnibus transportation-spending bill that was passed by the House-Senate budget conference committee on Dec. 21. Most Orange County-based politicians and military officials were unaware of the measure until last week.
The idea of using El Toro for commercial flights also has been discussed in Orange County, kindling debate among officials of Newport Beach (which favors the concept) and Irvine (which opposes it). Aviation officials and others have suggested that the Marine air base is the cheapest and easiest way to open a second regional airport in Orange County.
Dick Stafford, an FAA spokesman, acknowledged that the study deadline "is tight" and will force investigators to rely "heavily" on earlier reports on the issue.
He added, however, that the agency will dispatch a review team, probably from its Los Angeles office, to inspect the El Toro base firsthand and interview municipal officials and residents in surrounding communities.
A similar approach, Stafford said, probably will be employed to review the other two bases in the congressional order--Selfridge Air National Guard Base near Detroit and Scott Air Force Base in southwestern Illinois about 20 miles from St. Louis.
The El Toro study, Stafford said, will focus on the ability of the airfield's runways to handle commercial jet traffic along with the military flights. Tower facilities at the base, the availability of land for a civilian passenger terminal and access to the facility also will be studied.
Once completed, Stafford said, the FAA is unlikely to recommend whether joint use is feasible.
"Our mission is to lay out the facts and let (Congress) and the Defense Department decide what's best," Stafford said. He added that the FAA has completed similar reports "on short notice before and we are confident it can be done again."
Earlier Report on Bases
One of the earlier reports was mandated by the Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982. In that review the FAA was given the task of looking at 25 military air bases and air stations to determine which of them could be jointly used by the military and commercial interests.
The Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation concluded after that study, made public in 1984, that "joint use" was not a viable alternative for El Toro. The list of bases in that study stretched from Barber's Point in Hawaii to the Naval Air Station in South Weymouth, Mass. The FAA contracted out part of the study with a Massachusetts firm that visited each base. It took more than a year to complete.
Military sources questioned whether the FAA has the time it needs in this latest study to do a good review of the three bases and still meet the March 31 deadline.
Others expressed skepticism that the FAA can do more than "just rehash" the issue.
"Oh, they may finish the study, but it may be 200 pages on the two Midwest bases and one page on El Toro that says, 'Nothing new," said Jim McConnel, Orange County's Washington-based lobbyist.
Barbara Lichman, executive director of the Airport Working Group in Newport Beach, said the short time frame makes it "nearly impossible to do anything more than a literature review. . . ."
The group represents homeowners near John Wayne Airport and lobbies aviation officials on noise and other concerns. It played a key role in getting commercial flight restrictions placed on John Wayne.
Lichman added: "I predict that this report will hardly be remembered as a pioneering work."
Newport Official Disagrees
Newport Beach officials disagreed. Ken Delino, assistant city manager, said the city welcomes the FAA inquiry because "it will show, once and for all, that the El Toro base is a viable alternative." He said city officials are encouraged that the FAA is coordinating the study because the agency recognizes the need for a second regional airport.
"The FAA is motivated," Delino said, "to find a way to relieve the air space pressures on existing airports. This study may be the document that opens the door to a solution."
The study, Delino predicted, will expose the myth that commercial and military aircraft are not compatible at El Toro.
"Up to now everybody has said, 'It can't be done, it can't be done,' " Delino said. "We hope this study proves, once and for all, that it can be done so we can finally identify that base as a potential site for another commercial airport in this county."
Newport wants the El Toro option considered because of the noise that jets flying in and out of John Wayne Airport make over Newport Beach. For the same reasons, Irvine, which borders El Toro, wants no more flights there.
Local officials remained puzzled Wednesday as to why El Toro was included in the joint-use studies requested by Michigan Rep. Robert Carr, a Democrat who represents a suburban Detroit district.
Carr has been on vacation and unavailable for comment. But an aide to Carr in Washington said El Toro was added because it is located near a busy commercial airport, similar to Selfridge, which is near Carr's Michigan home of Pontiac.
Despite the military's longstanding opposition to opening the base to commercial aviation, Col. Jack Wagner said, "we welcome the study with open arms because we think it will show this idea has little merit."
Wagner, who acts as liaison between El Toro and neighboring communities, predicted that the results of the new study would be the same as the one conducted in 1983.