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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Hold the Champagne, Please

It’s been nearly a year since the $310-million Thomas F. Riley Terminal opened at John Wayne Airport, and the initial kinks, for the most part, have been worked out. The new passenger terminal, just north of the quaint original facility, signaled that a modern era of air travel in Orange County had arrived.

But having the terminal still hasn’t stilled serious discussions about safety, noise and air traffic at John Wayne. Questions remain as the passenger facility approaches its first anniversary Monday, with a celebration planned for the next day.

Recently, for example, a pilot who flies Boeing 757s out of John Wayne voiced doubts in a Times interview about the safety of a 500-foot power cutoff procedure used by some airlines to meet local noise standards, which are among the strictest in the nation. Some pilots have dubbed the cutoff “an accident waiting to happen,” and the Federal Aviation Administration announced it is studying the procedure.

The pilot, Peter Murray, maintained that the procedure occupies too much pilot attention at a crucial time during takeoff. He also said pilots were concerned that the steep angle required in some takeoffs limits their visibility.

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In addition, he made critical comments about the length of John Wayne’s runway, which at 5,700 feet is shorter than most airport runways, and about the absence of center-line lights to help in night landings.

The safety questions addressed in these comments must eventually be answered by airport administrators and the FAA. Area residents and airline passengers deserve responses.

But although safety is paramount, it is not the only concern at John Wayne. The new terminal was built only after lawsuits about noise, pending for many years, were settled. Surrounding neighborhoods were assured that noise levels would be kept at a minimum.

If a takeoff procedure or any other aspect of airport operation is eventually determined to be unsafe, it must be banned. However, that doesn’t mean noise levels can be increased.

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Runway length and other issues must receive full discussion, and safety must be the first priority. Noise agreements will also have to be preserved.

If all these can be satisfactorily addressed, there will be reason to celebrate not only the terminal’s first anniversary but all future anniversaries as well.


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