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County supervisors OK search for general aviation service providers at John Wayne Airport

Crows fly over the runway at John Wayne Airport on Wednesday, March 7.
Small general aviation planes are parked in covered storage at John Wayne Airport in 2018.
(File Photo)

Orange County can begin searching for hangar management, fueling and other service providers for the soon-to-be-updated general aviation portion of John Wayne Airport.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a request for proposals, or RFP, that airport officials will use to hire three so-called fixed-base operators.

As they have throughout the development this year of a general aviation improvement project at the airport, small-plane pilots expressed anxiety that they might be squeezed out by larger — and potentially more lucrative — corporate jets. They have found support from officials and residents of nearby cities who emphasized potential effects of aircraft noise and pollution.

Two full-service operators will manage covered and parking lot-style plane storage and provide charter operations, aircraft maintenance, repair, washing and full-service fueling. One limited-service operator will offer storage, plane washing, light aircraft repair and self-service fueling.

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The request for proposals defines light general aviation as planes with a wingspan narrower than 49 feet or a maximum takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds.

Craig Ryan of the Southern California Pilots Assn. considered that definition generous to bigger aircraft and said a plane at the 49-foot mark is a jet, not “light GA.” A six-seat Cessna 210, which he said is considered large among light planes, is 37 feet wide.

Ryan wanted the county to maintain the current ratio of storage spaces at 76% for planes 40 feet wide or less, 15% for planes up to 50 feet and 9% for planes up to 60 feet.

The future ratio will be determined by the responses to the RFP.

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“We’re not saying no jets,” Ryan said Tuesday. “We’re just saying keep the same ratio so you don’t get the increase in noise and pollution and the little guys don’t get pushed out of the field.”

Neighborhood groups in the flight path and elected officials, including Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon, Councilman Jeff Herdman and Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley, also supported keeping the current storage mix.

“Smaller hangars generally house quieter planes,” Foley said.

However, Lauren Kramer, an attorney for the county, said the airport must avoid discriminating against certain classes of aircraft and subjecting itself to a legal challenge by the Federal Aviation Administration.

As it is, the county will exclude planes over the 49-foot mark from certain areas, limiting the space for them to about 25 of the 60 acres for plane storage and support services. That leaves the balance for light GA.

“We believe that we have the rationale for separating aircraft into large and small to withstand an FAA challenge,” Kramer said. “But the more we add restrictions … we think that we’re more susceptible to an FAA challenge.”

Supervisor Doug Chaffee said he favored a flexible request to attract the most proposals and that he expected successful firms would mirror what the public wants in order to get the supervisors’ support.

“Probably the most attentive people in the world to what’s been said here are those who want to apply,” he said.

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Planned upgrades to general aviation infrastructure at JWA include a new terminal for noncommercial international flights and updated buildings and airfield roads to comply with FAA standards. All the proposed changes will stay within the airport’s existing footprint.

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