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O.C. Airport Plan Would Encourage Discount Carriers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking to address the rapid changes in the airline industry, John Wayne Airport officials Monday disclosed a plan that could clear the way for new discount-oriented airlines, including Reno Air, to start service from Orange County.

The recommendations call for allowing airlines already serving the airport to share landing slots with carriers that do not currently serve the airport. It is similar to an arrangement backed by Reno Air and American Airlines earlier this summer.

If adopted, the “access plan” would represent a marked change from the present method of allocating flight slots every year at the noise-controlled airport.

For the past decade, airlines were only allowed to begin service if they won landing slots during an annual reallocation by the county Board of Supervisors.

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Under the proposal, an airline could pick up slots either through the reallocation or through an affiliation with another carrier already operating at John Wayne.

To start, the host airline would have to permanently hand over two landing slots to a partner that is new to the airport. Then it could vary the number of additional slots it gives away up to a maximum of half of its authorized allocation.

By requiring a mandatory two-flight minimum, airport officials are trying to ensure that the new carrier would maintain a presence at John Wayne even if its partnership with its host should end.

The idea of sharing landing slots became an issue two months ago when Reno Air, an upstart regional carrier that offers low fares, wanted to pick up as many as a half-dozen landing slots from American Airlines under a marketing agreement between the two.

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American wanted to drop six flights to San Jose that it deemed unprofitable. But Reno Air, with lower operating costs, thought it could turn a dollar on the same route while participating in American’s frequent-flier program and other customer loyalty programs.

Just as Reno Air service to San Jose was due to start, however, the plan went awry. Other airlines objected, saying it was unfair to allow Reno Air to skip ahead of other carriers dutifully waiting for the annual reallocation. Federal regulators expressed concern about restrictions being placed on Reno Air’s service by the airport.

Reno Air withdrew the plan and decided to wait for whatever new policy the airport eventually adopted.

“Airport staff has put in a lot of effort to try to understand the issues and concerns of carriers, the FAA and Department of Transportation and the traveling public and it may be a difficult balance to achieve,” said airport spokeswoman Courtney C. Wiercioch.

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The plan now undergoes another round of comment from the airlines at John Wayne, then goes to the Airport Commission and Board of Supervisors for approval. Airport staffers said they hope the matter can come to a final vote Sept. 20.

The new plan could meet opposition from some airlines that have already lobbied against allowing affiliations between carriers, such as United Airlines and USAir. Representatives of those two carriers could not be reached for comment late Monday.

But for Reno Air, the recommendations seem favorable.

“It appears to be a very fair policy which liberalizes access to the airport,” said Robert M. Rowen, a Reno Air vice president. “We’re very eager to start serving Orange County.”

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The recommendations also try to address other changes in the airline industry, such as linkages between national and international carriers.

The plan asks that airlines like Northwest and USAir be allowed to install signs that indicate their affiliation with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and British Airways, respectively, even though the international carriers do not operate any flights at John Wayne.

“The industry has changed since the original affiliation policy was adopted and the county is attempting to be responsive to that change while protecting the county’s interests and allowing carriers operating flexibility,” Wiercioch said.


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