Report Finds Little Need for El Toro Airport


There is little demand for an international airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station through the year 2025, according to a draft of an unreleased feasibility study commissioned by county officials.

The federally funded study concludes that a commercial airport at El Toro would not necessarily generate demand for passenger and cargo service in Orange County.

The study relied on optimistic forecasts for passenger and cargo demands and did not consider future environmental or passenger restrictions at Orange County airports. Still, it predicted only modest increases through the next three decades in passenger and cargo service at local airports, including a commercial airport at the Marine base.

The study was ordered by the Board of Supervisors and has not been made public. However, The Times obtained a Dec. 2 draft of the report by Leigh Fisher Associates.

The consultants' findings contradict a 1993 study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which found that El Toro "could be a very viable commercial airport in terms of serving demand."

The earlier study also said that John Wayne Airport "would be little affected," even if 40% of the flights from a new El Toro airport were so-called "long-haul" flights in commercial jets to cities more than two hours' distance.

However, the Leigh Fisher report counters arguments by some of the county's most powerful political and business interests to develop a commercial airport at the Marine base, which is scheduled to close by 1999.

Proponents say an airport is needed to accommodate the county's growth in the 21st Century, which they say will include a major increase in demand for passenger and cargo service. However, the new study suggests that predictions of a huge demand for a new airport may be unrealistic.

The consultants who prepared the new report declined to comment.

John Wayne Airport Manager Jan Mittermeier, who received a draft of the Leigh Fisher report in December, did not return repeated messages to her home Saturday.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez said Saturday he had not seen the report but added that he is not surprised by the findings.

"I have had reservations about the feasibility of an aviation facility at El Toro for a long time," Vasquez said. "This is based on what I've seen at other regional airports where expansions that were going to happen have not because the demand isn't there. Look at Long Beach Airport. They've got slots available (for passenger flights) that nobody will take."

Leigh Fisher has "a very good reputation," he added. "Their conclusions would not come as a surprise."

Supervisor William G. Steiner said Saturday he had not seen the report, but he said Mittermeier "should send it back to the drawing board if the study is inconsistent with the findings of (the 1993) SCAG report."

"It's her responsibility to request another review if it appears that their assumptions are flawed," Steiner said. "It flies squarely in the face of the SCAG report."

Supervisor Marian Bergeson, whose district includes the El Toro base, said she had not seen the report either but has heard about it.

"I've heard that the study suggests there is little demand for an El Toro airport, but I haven't seen it," she said.

Bergeson said she is open to a number of options for developing the Marine base, including an airport. She said she wants Irvine and Lake Forest to play an active role in planning the reuse of the base.

Todd Nicholson, president of the Industrial League of Orange County, took issue with the Leigh Fisher findings. The league is a strong backer of an airport for El Toro.

"All the information that we have received from a variety of sources indicates that based on industrial growth projected for the next century, a second airport is sorely needed at El Toro," Nicholson said. "That report runs contrary to everything we've heard in past years. It raises a lot of suspicions in my mind as to the methodology used."

The study noted that because of noise and environmental restrictions, county-owned John Wayne is "constrained" to 8.4 million passengers annually. But the report, which relied heavily on data that included "unconstrained demands for aviation services at Orange County airports," noted that John Wayne handled 6.1 million passengers in 1993, or 8% of the 78 million passengers that used Southern California airports.

The report predicted that passenger share at Orange County airports will grow to about 15% of the region's total by 2025, even with a civilian airport at El Toro. However, this prediction is based on the assumption that there will not be any environmental and passenger restrictions at local airports in the next century.

But when taking into account the possibility that other airports in Southern California "will successfully accommodate the continued increase in regional passenger demand," the study predicted that Orange County airports will handle only 10% of Southern California's passenger demand by 2025, a modest 2% increase in 32 years.

The study compared airport service in Orange County to Burbank, Long Beach and Palm Springs airports and international airports at Los Angeles, Ontario and San Diego. It also noted the stiff competition faced by John Wayne in competing for passengers and cargo with other regional airports.

"A significant portion of the population and employment in (Southern California) is concentrated in areas more than 30 miles from Orange County airports, where there is competing service from other airports," the study said.

The report included repeated warnings that the study was done using the most optimistic forecast for passenger and cargo demand. It included the caveat that "no assumptions were made about the allocation of passenger service to specific Orange County airports or about the willingness of airlines to provide service to meet demand."

Considering these and other factors "would result in a materially lower forecast, particularly given the competing nearby airports that can accommodate regional passenger demand," said the report.

John Wayne Airport currently handles about 1% of the region's air cargo, but up to 30% of the region's cargo originates in Orange County. However, even if a commercial airport is built at the Marine base, Orange County airports are expected to handle no more than 15% of the region's cargo by 2025, said the study.

"As with passenger demand, the allocation of cargo demand to specific airports and the willingness of airlines to provide service at these airports was not considered," the report said.

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