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City Life:

The home page of the website for AirFair, the group working to improve your quality of life by trying to limit passenger levels at John Wayne Airport, features this quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

A quick label for Melinda Seely, AirFair president, and Jean Watt, a board member, would be “activists,” but that would be taking the easy way out. Call them “advocates.”

Besides, when one thinks of activists, the perception is often of people who have chained themselves to bulldozers or are living in a tree for a couple years in order to make a point.

I met recently with Seely and Watt to discuss the status of the airport, and it is safe to say that no one should be concerned about whether they plan to take over the control tower at JWA. A revolution is not their goal.


Seely and Watt have more effective methods.

The first method is persistence. AirFair has no paid staff members, yet the group has been meeting a couple of times a month for about eight years, and through its wins and losses, AirFair is still pounding away at any resource that could help limit airport capacity.

Seely and Watt, and no doubt the rest of the organization, fully understand that JWA is not going to go away. Not now, not ever. So the best they can do is to push hard to limit expansion.

The difference here, though, is a thorough understanding of the maneuvering it takes to navigate the treacherous waters of competing ideas and hidden agendas, whether they are business, political or personal.


“We’re trying to scale the business interests with the quality of life to ensure that balance is maintained,” Seely said.

The goal of preserving or improving the quality of life is reflected in their mission statement: “Stop expansion of John Wayne Airport,” and in their goal: “To deliberately raise the level of discourse about permanent curfew, as well as flight and passenger caps, at JWA in order to accomplish political change.”

The next method is vigilance. Seely and Watt have been watching the airport decision-makers, business interests and politicians long enough to know that the word “permanent” is not in their vocabulary.

Before 2003, airport capacity was 8.4 million passengers, which was raised following an agreement in 1985. Now, capacity is at 10.8 million. With this history of new lines being drawn in the sand, it is no surprise that AirFair has to keep an eye on all of the airport stakeholders all the time, reaching as far away as Washington, D.C., and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Limiting the capacity at JWA is one of the rare issues that unites Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. At times, Costa Mesa’s support for passenger limits has been stronger than in Newport Beach, even though the bulk of the noise from take-offs affects Newport Beach residents.

One of the reasons for that Costa Mesa support is the understanding that an expansion of the airport’s passenger capacity has significant impact beyond airplane noise.

More passengers means more traffic, a need for more rental car space, more parking spots, more pollution and more of a lot of things that will negatively impact the area.

The third effective method is passion. It is hard to sit for an hour with Seely and Watt, as I did, and not leave with a sense of urgency for their cause and respect for their efforts. During our meeting, they did not speak one unkind word about anyone, never raised their voices, and stayed totally focused on their purpose: to educate me and increase awareness of their organization and its goals.


As you can see, they succeeded. As Watt said near the end of our meeting, “Our leverage will come from the power of the people.”

Now, the airport is under construction again, adding a new terminal and a new parking structure. And while that may seem a world away to you, it is really just right down the street.

AirFair needs your help. I urge you to visit and learn how you can join the fight to prevent more planes from crowding our local skies.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to