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Airline Details El Toro Safety Concerns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County’s plans to convert the El Toro Marine base into a commercial airport were hit Tuesday with the airline industry’s first criticism about safety at the proposed airfield.

American Airlines, in a letter responding to an airport foe’s questions, said tail winds and rising terrain means that easterly takeoffs on Runway 7 “will never be considered desirable or preferable from an airline or pilot’s point of view.”

The June 14 letter from Robert W. Baker, American’s vice president for operations, tended to side with concerns previously raised by two pilots unions about the safety of the proposed operation.

In prior letters to the county, American had specifically distanced itself from comments by the union and by one of its own pilots, Stan Sanders.

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“But this letter is the closest [Baker] has come to agreeing with the pilots,” said American spokesman John Hotard, who confirmed the contents. Baker couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment.

Airport opponents believe the letter heightens the debate over airport and runway safety, and will play a role later in Federal Aviation Administration reviews of the county’s plans.

“The bottom line is that the pilots will ultimately make the decision as to whether to take off on the runway,” said Irvine Mayor Christina L. Shea. “And if American Airlines is saying that they can’t use the runway, it just blows apart the entire premise of the county planning a [huge] airport in our backyard.”

Baker’s letter “substantiates everything we’ve been saying for the last five years,” she said.

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But Ellen Call, a spokeswoman for the county’s El Toro planning office, said the county has taken steps in its planning process to include tail wind and rising terrain.

“When the wind exceeds a certain level, planes will use Runway 34,” the north-south runway, said Call. “That’s the beauty of having more than one runway.”

Pilots also have raised concerns about the county’s proposed northerly departures going over Loma Ridge, which rises more than 800 feet about three miles off the northern runway. A military jet transporting soldiers failed to clear the ridge in 1965, crashing and killing 84 people. The Marines stopped using the northerly departure route after the crash.

Call said she has not seen a copy of the Baker letter, which was addressed to Leonard Kranser. Kranser, who operates an anti-El Toro Web site, read the letter and distributed copies Tuesday to supervisors during a meeting on El Toro airport matters. The supervisors continued their meeting without responding.

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Baker’s letter did not address the north-south runway, but it said that the easterly Runway 7 should not be considered “the primary runway.”

“From a theoretical perspective,” Baker wrote, “Runway 7 can be used for most scheduled services departing El Toro.”

But, he pointed out, the “combination of rising terrain and predominant tail wind will restrict the use of this runway” in strong winds and with heavy aircraft.

The letter, Hotard said, is aimed at clarifying the company’s concern regarding earlier statements made by Sanders, the pilot, and is not intended to involve the carrier in the political fray about whether an airport should be built at El Toro.

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“In essence, Bob is saying to residents in Orange County that you people need to make the decision of wherever you need to put your airport,” Hotard said. “But the safety issue comes in when you want to use Runway 7 because . . . he is saying that, whenever possible, [American Airlines] wants to go into the wind.”

For Meg Waters, spokeswoman for an eight-city coalition of El Toro airport opponents, the airline’s letter represented a first glimmer of concern from the industry.

“Nobody with any credibility in aviation has said that an airport, as the county proposes it, is safe,” she said.

Baker’s letter also reiterated the airline industry’s opposition to having two commercial airports in Orange County, one at John Wayne Airport and another at El Toro.

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“It is unrealistic to anticipate that the airlines would be willing to operate split operations at Orange County [JWA] and El Toro,” wrote Baker, American’s executive vice president for operations. “This represents an undesirable fragmentation of the market and operational inefficiencies.”

Call said, though, that other two-airport systems, such as those in San Francisco, Oakland and Dallas, have been successful.

“But in answer to what Baker said about split operations, there is going to be more than enough business in Orange County for both airports, according to demand forecasts,” she said.

Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.

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