JWA concessioner gets support

The Orange County Airport Commission voted 4 to 0 Wednesday to recommend keeping its current concessioner at John Wayne Airport, but with new restaurants like a Ruby's Diner and Zov's Bistro.

It also approved a new discount airline with service to Canada, and signed off on the airport's capacity plan for the coming year.

The same concessioner has been operating at JWA since the Thomas F. Riley Terminal opened in 1990. With that company's contract expiring and a new terminal under construction, the airport sought new proposals to fill restaurants, cocktail lounges and snack bars.

If Wednesday's Airport Commission vote is then approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, then HMSHost Corporation of Maryland would win the 10-year contract and the county-owned airport could take in $39.4 million. That's $15 million more than projected by its competitor, Delaware North Cos. of New York.

"$15 million is a lot of money not to pursue," said Commissioner Chris Welsh. "The rent difference was very significant, and hard to overlook in a public environment. You're not playing with your own money."

Besides revenue, the decision was based on the companies' selection of local and national restaurants, how they plan to renovate aging facilities in the existing terminals, and their concepts for the under-construction Terminal C.

HMSHost proposed locally-owned restaurants like Zov's and Ruby's, and a Hobie Hut, a surf-themed bar and grill run by Hobie Alter, the local water sports pioneer. The company also partnered with the Anaheim Ducks to create a sports-themed bar called Ducks Slapshot Bar & Grill.

"We're really pleased with the vote," said HMSHost spokeswoman Susan Goyette "We believe our offer of authentic Orange County restaurants and superior rent and investment in the airport is really the best proposal."

Delaware North recruited a John Wayne-themed restaurant run by Wayne's son, Ethan. Wahoo's Fish Taco, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and a different surf bar, this one run by local surfing legend Corky Carroll, signed on with Delaware.

Ethan Wayne said he agreed to build the first John Wayne-branded restaurant, True Grit Grill and Rooster Cogburn Ft. Smith Saloon, because the current concession concepts were lacking.

"We all know the service that HMSHost has provided for the last 20 years," he said, "We would like to see the Board of Supervisors rethink this decision and bring the John Wayne name and brand to the airport."

Comparing the restaurants with local ties, Welsh thought there wasn't much difference. "The reality is that a Hobie-themed bar and a Corky Carroll-themed bar is pretty similar, and both have roots here," he said.

Before the vote, an airport staff committee ranked the two proposals and recommended choosing Delaware North because of its proposed renovations to the commercial spaces and its array of restaurants, even though the HMSHost proposal would bring in more revenue.

"We're disappointed that the Airport Commission disagreed with its own independent, thorough evaluation process," said Nick Schaefer, director of Business Development, Delaware North Cos., in a statement. "We gave the airport everything they asked for and more."

The Delaware North proposal is projected to generate $23.9 million for the county over the 10-year contract, according to a staff report, and HMSHost would generate $39.4 million.

In other airport news:

The Federal Aviation Administration tested the latest satellite-guided flight path, called STREL, in November. Since the FAA initiated the satellite navigation system more than a year ago, JWA departures were concentrated over certain areas near the Back Bay, and some residents, mostly on the eastside, complained.

STREL is the third version of the path. FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the intention is to send flights down the middle of the bay. Gregor said the two tests, which were performed in FAA jets, were both satisfactory. Commercial carriers are expected to start using the new path in mid-January, Gregor added, after the FAA further validates the procedures.

The Airport Commission also approved a new airline, WestJet, a Canadian-based discount carrier. It plans to resume JWA service to Canada, after Air Canada pulled out in October.

WestJet applied for two daily departures. They were approved along with the airport's annual capacity plan. JWA is limited to 10.8 million passengers per year, per the Airport Settlement Agreement. As of November, the airport had fewer than 8 million passengers pass through its gates in 2010.

The Board of Supervisors will also review the capacity plan Jan. 11.

Airport officials released November passenger statistics earlier this week. JWA served 690,859 passengers in November, a decrease of 1.3% when compared to the November 2009. Thus far this year, the airport has had 0.3% fewer passengers compared to a this same time in 2009.

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