Airport Parking Garage Seems Terminally Full : Congestion: Only the lucky and early birds manage to find a slot at John Wayne multilevel garage. Surrounding construction hassles haven't helped matters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Palmer simply wanted to jump on a jet Wednesday for a quick, one-day business trip to Las Vegas, but he ran into turbulence before he even got out of his Mercedes.

As Palmer pulled up to the parking structure at John Wayne Airport, he fixed his gaze on the sort of sign that sparks trepidation in the most steely of travelers: "Garage Parking Full."

Palmer rolled down a window and an attendant handed him a map showing a roundabout route to the airport's long-term parking lots, located on the far side of the San Diego Freeway. This was going to be one of those days, he thought.

"I think this parking situation is a mess," Palmer said before roaring off to find a safe haven for his car. "This is a total disruption."

Welcome to the parking follies at Orange County's John Wayne Airport. As it has been for several years, the task of gleaning a parking slot at the local airport can be a daunting pursuit. And with the summer tourist season set to begin in earnest with the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, the monumental motoring mess at John Wayne promises only to get worse.

Matters haven't been helped any by the high-level tussle over construction delays plaguing the long-awaited passenger terminal on the airport's northern side. When completed, the new terminal will include enough parking stalls to quadruple the present capacity. But a variety of snafus have delayed the grand opening, originally scheduled for April, until late September.

"I think people here would agree the present parking situation is not perfect," acknowledged Courtney Wiercioch, special projects chief at John Wayne Airport. "We're in the middle of a construction project. I think we all expected there would be some inconvenience during the process. We would hope that people would bear with us."

Bear with it they must. Under the existing setup, motorists must vie for one of the 1,600 parking spaces available in the lone parking structure within walking distance of the airport. Far more plentiful parking is available in two long-term lots north of the freeway, but passengers must board a shuttle bus to get to their appointed airline.

Wiercioch and other airport officials recommend that anyone planning to park for more than a few hours take time to drive to the long-term lots and ride the shuttle to the airport, a five-minute trip during light traffic.

Another tip is to hunt for a spot in a surface lot on the south side of the existing terminal. The lot features coin-operated meters, and is often overlooked by motorists dashing along the airport's loop road.

With summer fast approaching, however, that sort of oasis will likely disappear during all but the slowest hours of the day. Memorial Day weekend is just the start. Last year, more than 45,000 passengers flooded the boarding gates during the holiday, but the weekend total jumped to an average of about 56,000 during the three subsequent weeks.

Even on Wednesday, an otherwise slow day, the airport's main parking structure was full by 10 a.m., forcing authorities to post a sign warning motorists to look elsewhere. Parking attendants advised drivers of the various options and handed them maps to the long-term lots.

Some motorists rolled their eyes and accepted their fate. Others stomped on the accelerator and shouted curses.

"They're really upset," noted parking attendant Norma Mota as she handed out maps to motorists. "They want to park close to the airport. Some really cuss us out."

The parking problem at the structure is nothing unusual, she said. It is full most days by the late morning and typically stays that way until mid-afternoon.

Just getting to the parking lot or terminal can become a taxing journey. The airport now has only one main entrance off MacArthur Boulevard, and the cars queue up during busy hours for hundreds of yards as motorists jockey for position to drop off passengers. Completion of the new terminal will usher in the use of new ramps leading from the San Diego Freeway directly into the airport.

Even the parking structure can become gripped by gridlock. One woman recently reported being stuck in traffic inside the four-level structure for almost a half hour after returning on a Friday evening flight.

Mike and Lois Demianew thought they might spend a half hour Wednesday morning just looking for a parking space. The retired Anaheim couple, there to drop off her sister for a flight back to Seattle, hurried into the parking structure just minutes before attendants decided to close it down to additional traffic.

The husband wheeled his Cadillac around one level, then the next, then the next, all to no avail. Finally the car lumbered into the open sunlight of the top deck. After trundling around the perimeter of the lot, the couple spotted one of the last parking stalls left unoccupied.

"I'm going to use a half tank of gas going around here," Mike said in frustration. "This is terrible."

Lois nodded in agreement. "If the new airport ever opens up, it will be nice," she said. "But right now, this is a mess."

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