Once again the federal government is studying the possibility of opening the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to joint military and commercial airline use. Local officials and residents should not get their hopes up, however. There is nothing to indicate that joint use is more feasible or acceptable now than it was several years ago when the federal government studied and emphatically rejected the idea.
For years, local officials have searched for a site for a major commercial airport to supplement operations at John Wayne Airport. John Wayne, located in unincorporated territory, is the only airfield in Orange County that provides passenger jet service. El Toro is always on the search list, even though some prior studies have rejected it. For a variety of factors, the pressure on the air station has built in recent years.
For one thing, the inability to find a suitable site for another airport anywhere else in the county keeps frustrated residents and local elected officials, especially those in Newport Beach, circling back to El Toro. Also adding to the pressure against the base is a clause in a legal compromise reached in 1985 between the county and Newport Beach in which the county board backed off its position that there is no suitable site for a new airport in the county. That action, as the Irvine City Council feared, renewed interest in joint military-civilian use of the El Toro air station.
The Marine Corps, which has been flying out of El Toro for nearly 45 years, has steadfastly maintained that joint use won't work. The Marines insist that commercial flights would seriously impair the corps' ability to train and conduct some sensitive operations needed to carry out its primary mission of keeping Marine pilots combat-ready.
El Toro's argument drew solid support in a report made public in 1984 on a Federal Aviation Administration study of 25 military air bases and stations to determine which might be suitable for joint civilian-military use. El Toro wasn't one of them. The separation on its parallel runways was judged too narrow for joint use. The air facility has limited expansion potential. And it was believed that while residents around the base "tolerated" the military, the addition of commercial flights would produce heavy opposition to operations of any kind. The Department of Defense adopted a position paper strongly opposing joint use as "technically infeasible."
The only change in the situation since then is that the area around the military base and under its flight patterns is even more urbanized than in 1984. That adds thousands of new reasons, in the form of new residents who have moved into communities in Irvine, El Toro, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo, that joint use may be even more "infeasible" today.
Opening the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station runways to commercial jet operations wouldn't solve Orange County's airport environmental problem. It would only relocate it.