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Potential general aviation updates at John Wayne Airport raise concerns in Newport Beach

Crows fly over the runway at John Wayne Airport on Wednesday, March 7.
John Wayne Airport is home to about 500 general aviation aircraft and has about 50 such departures a day.
(File Photo)

Orange County’s plans to update the general aviation side of John Wayne Airport has neighbors in Newport Beach concerned about a potential shift toward more corporate jets, which some say are as disruptive as commercial jetliners.

The infrastructure project could lead to several enhancements, including updated buildings and airfield roads to comply with current standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration, plus a terminal for noncommercial flights. The proposed terminal — the airport currently has terminals only for commercial service — also would house a separate, fee-based screening facility for international travelers flying privately.

The proposed changes would stay within the airport’s existing footprint.

Sue Dvorak, who lives directly under the JWA departure path in Newport’s Eastbluff neighborhood, said she fears loopholes that would encourage corporate jets, including on-demand air taxis, pushing out the smallest private planes that also tend to be the quietest.

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“It’s almost like they want to turn [John Wayne] into [Los Angeles International Airport],” Dvorak said. “I feel like it’s a tipping point for Newport Beach with the expansion that they want to start.”

The city also holds a disapproving stance. On a web page dedicated to John Wayne Airport relations, Newport says the city has long held the position that it will support any plan that maintains the existing level of general aviation operations or related support facilities and noise regulations. It also says it will oppose any plan for significant changes.

The city also raises the possibility that the county’s proposals would make John Wayne “more appealing to corporate jet owners and operators,” pointing to a passage in a county-commissioned environmental assessment report of the general aviation project, which says “regularly scheduled commercial charter operators have approached the county expressing their interest in initiating regularly scheduled air service at the airport.” The county owns and operates John Wayne Airport.

Councilman Jeff Herdman, who chairs the city’s Aviation Committee, said Newport’s outsized property tax contributions to Orange County’s coffers are part of the city’s messaging when it comes to airport concerns.

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According to an analysis by the city’s Finance Department, Newport had the county’s second-highest net taxable property value, second only to the much-larger Irvine. Newport ranks 12th among the county’s 34 cities by population.

“We are the second-highest economic generator of income in this county, for the county,” Herdman said at a committee meeting Monday. “Don’t do anymore to us.”

Newport has long walked a taut line in its relationship with John Wayne Airport.

Planes lift off directly over Upper Newport Bay and adjoining neighborhoods, and the takeoff path nudged closer to homes in 2017 as part of the FAA’s Southern California Metroplex project, which made changes to the region’s air traffic system. The FAA said the changes would shore up inefficiencies, save fuel and reduce carbon emissions and flight delays.

Newport Beach, later joined by Orange County, sued the FAA, challenging the accuracy and efficacy of the agency’s environmental assessment of the Metroplex project, which concluded there would be no significant effects on surrounding communities. The city settled with the FAA last year under an agreement that departures move back toward the bay.

Since 1985, JWA has operated under another Newport-initiated settlement agreement that set limits on noise levels, commercial departures, number of annual passengers and airport capital improvements.

Crows fly over the runway at John Wayne Airport on Wednesday, March 7.
A small private jet leaves John Wayne Airport.
(File Photo)

General aviation is in a different class. It refers to nonscheduled flights by aircraft other than airliners or commercial freight services. Those aircraft include gliders, helicopters and single- and twin-engine piston and turboprop planes, in addition to corporate jets, the largest planes in the general aviation class.

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John Wayne is home to about 500 general aviation aircraft and has about 50 such departures a day. Under the county’s preferred plan, general aviation departures would increase to 55 per day.

City airport consultant Tom Edwards said the smallest planes, which he calls “mom and pops,” tend to take off over Costa Mesa or Irvine, while the corporate jets follow the same departure patterns as airliners.

Noise monitors along the takeoff route show that the average business jet is quieter than any of the commercial carriers, but not necessarily by much. According to noise data published by the airport last fall, general aviation jets measured 2.2 decibels lower or less than the quietest airline, Southwest. Generally, the human ear doesn’t detect changes of less than 3 decibels.

Commercial carriers have a curfew, with no departures between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. and no arrivals between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., except on Sundays, when the curfew extends to 8 a.m. General aviation pilots can come and go around the clock as long as their aircraft stay beneath a threshold of about 87 decibels. General aviation departures average about seven per week outside the commercial curfew, according to airport data.

The Newport Beach City Council will consider solidifying its opposition with a vote at its meeting Tuesday to authorize the mayor to send a letter to the Orange County Board of Supervisors asking it to adopt a general aviation plan that doesn’t add a new terminal.

Dvorak, who is active with the group Citizens Addressing Airport Noise and Pollution, said she fears increased airplane noise could eventually turn Newport into another Surfridge, a luxury beachfront community that turned into a ghost town after the expansion of LAX.

Maxine Maly, a Balboa Island resident, said she also fears the death of the “golden goose” in Newport.

“Those small Learjets ... they will throw you out of bed at 3 a.m. every now and then,” Maly told the Aviation Committee. “Not all the time, but when they go over it’s startling.”

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