Orange County is breaking out of its insular self as John Wayne Airport prepares for the possibility of international flights to Mexico and other destinations in Central America, which would follow in the contrails of JWA's new once-daily service to Toronto.
Construction began Tuesday on a walkway that will connect the airport's Terminal B to Terminal C, the future 280,000-square-foot facility featuring six new gates, which will go along with new international flights, said Jenny Wedge, the airport's spokeswoman.
Facilities for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will also be built, possibly turning John Wayne Airport into John Wayne "International" Airport. Technically speaking, however, the airport needs 15,000 international passengers a year and more than 2,000 international arrivals annually to be designated as such by the federal government.
"Right now, we have no plans to change the name," said Wedge, adding that the $540 million in improvements is expected to accommodate 10.8 million passengers between January 2011 and December 2015, according to a re-negotiated agreement between Orange County and the city of Newport Beach.
The improvements, she said, will be completed by December 2011. They started in July 2009. The new terminal itself will cost $195.9 million.
Other facilities to be added include a parking structure, three baggage carousels, food and beverage and news and gift concessions stands, along with the expected screening, security and checkpoints for international flights.
If no airline companies are interested in providing international flights, Wedge said, Terminal C can always be used for the overflow of passengers already occurring in Terminals A and B.
"It gets cramped in there right now," she said, adding that last year's total passengers came to 8.7 million, nearly 300,000 above the limit that was set in 1985 under the original agreement struck between Newport Beach and the airport.
At least $180 million of the improvements will be paid for by Passenger Facility Charge Revenues. That is, $4.50 per passenger is set aside to help fund major infrastructure development at airports across the country, the result of a law enacted by Congress in 1990.
To some residents, however, the so-called improvements are merely an "expansion" by the airport, and should be considered such, said Ron Darling, a former member of the Airport Working Group of Orange County.
"They love to play with the words and say it's just an 'improvement,' but it's really an expansion," Darling said. "People just don't understand. The problem is, it's the 29th busiest airport in the world and planes fly over hundreds of houses."
He said the airport property "is a tiny piece of property the size of a postage stamp."
According to Wedge, the airport is 44th busiest airport in the country in terms of its total number of passengers.
As for the 5,700-foot runway that sits parallel to the new Terminal C, it can only accommodate flights of five hours or less, Wedge said, adding that no bigger commercial jets will be brought into the fold.
The issue of noise, however, has been a source of constant complaints from hundreds of residents who live directly under the path of flights from the airport. JWA operates on 503 acres in what technically is unincorporated Orange County.
She said the airport tries to do everything within its ability to limit the noise from the jet engines by making sure all aircraft abide by several monitors installed to keep the noise to a minimum.