JWA gives sneak peek of new terminal

Travelers will soon have more room stretch out and more spaces to park in, once John Wayne Airport officially opens its new Terminal C on Monday.

Officials on Wednesday previewed the building with six additional gates, a 2,000-space parking structure, and the latest security and ticketing technology.

Originally proposed to meet bursting air travel demand, Terminal C opens amid a tepid market and weak economy. John Wayne operates under its limit of 10.8 million passengers annually, but officials expect traffic to pick back up.

Terminal C is the capstone of the airport's $543-million expansion and renovations, first approved by the county Board of Supervisors in 2004. For the most part, the project has been delivered on time and on budget.

"It has gone very well," said Airport Director Alan Murphy, who managed the troubled construction of the Thomas F. Riley Terminal in the late 1980s. "In comparison, this one has been very smooth."

The new terminal continues the same look and feel of the existing buildings. Architects shaped the roof like the older building's recognizable metal fuselage, and used mostly the same materials inside.

"We've been able to merge the two buildings together," said Keith Thompson, a principal at Santa Monica-based architectural firm Gensler.

The Riley Terminal was designed to handle 8.4 million passengers per year, and in 2007, before the recession, it was handling about 10 million. That approached the airport's limit, which is now up for negotiation. Passenger traffic dropped to 8.7 million in 2010.

The recent slump in air travel "brought us a little breathing room," said Murphy. Before Terminal C, John Wayne had the highest number of passengers per gate in the nation.

To pay for the expansion, supervisors structured a complicated financing plan: a combination of airport revenues, Federal Aviation Administration grants, bonds, a $4.50 per-passenger charge and some miscellaneous sources. While the overall budget came in at target, some components exceeded their estimates.

McCarthy, the Terminal C general contractor, plans to complete the job for $120 million, according to Project Director Khatchig Tchapadarian, while its original contract amount was for $102 million. Tchapadarian blamed unforeseen costs, such as digging a trench and finding an active power line expected to be dormant.

For all the high technology in the new terminal — full-body scanners, endless flat screen monitors and a ticketing system that allows check-in at any counter — one aspect was decidedly low-tech: The paper towels in the bathrooms are dispensed by a manual crank of a wheel.

Extra parking was the biggest perk for traveler Matthew Glover, 29, who flies for his graphic design business. The Laguna Beach resident said before the new parking structure was opened, some lots would fill by 10 a.m.

"That's huge — less stress in travel," Glover said Wednesday. "It's such an easy airport to begin with, and this makes it easier."

The perks don't matter for some Newport Beach activists, who have fought to limit air traffic over their homes.

"I am overwhelmed at the size of John Wayne Airport," said Evelyn Hart, the former mayor of Newport Beach and an airport activist. "That has to be the absolute maximum of what can go out of there."

The Southern California Assn. of Governments forecasts that by 2035, the demand for air travel in the region will increase by 80%.

Murphy said he realizes that demand will surge in the future, but "we're very aware of our commitment to the community."


Twitter: @mreicher

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