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Another fight may be brewing over John Wayne Airport’s small plane facilities

Orange County’s recreational pilots and airport noise activists thought they had secured a promise in 2019 that would keep noisier corporate jets at bay and preserve space for smaller planes.

Now they’re worried they may have to fight another battle for those objectives on Tuesday, Aug. 11, when the Orange County Board of Supervisors is expected to pick which companies will overhaul aging general aviation facilities at John Wayne Airport and operate them for years to come.

The airport is now home to about 500 private aircraft of various sizes, from two-seater propeller planes to spacious corporate jets. It’s the latter that cause concern for small-plane pilots and airport-adjacent residents frustrated by noise and pollution: commuter operations (which often use those bigger jets) have increased significantly since 2017, more than doubling year-over-year in 2018 and growing by another 200% in 2019, when the airport logged 5,360 commuter takeoffs and landings.

In June 2019, the Southern California Pilots Association and two community groups, Airport Working Group and Still Protecting Our Newport, won a compromise when the Board of Supervisors (which oversees the county-owned airport) agreed to restrict a portion of the general aviation area to smaller planes only.

The county went out for proposals and ended up with seven companies bidding to build and run three facilities on the airfield for private planes. But, after the county asked bidders to revise their plans to get them in line with an environmental report on the improvement project, the pilots and other stakeholder groups realized the devil may be in the details.

The revised proposals include more large hangars and open areas that wouldn’t be built on, which pilots and residents fear would effectively reserve them so accommodations for business jets could be added later.

Pilots association member Craig Ryan said if the winning bidders go ahead with the revised plans, it could eliminate spots for nearly 300 small planes that now use the airport. The association wants the winning bidders to lock in spaces for small planes by building hangars that bigger jets won’t fit into.

While the airport now has some uncovered “tie-down” spaces available for small planes, Ryan said pilots want to protect their investment by parking it in a hangar, and the waiting list for those spots is decades long.

The stakeholder groups and one of the bidders said they’re still confused as to how none of the original proposals met the requirements and why airport officials didn’t ask for revisions until April, four months after the bids were submitted.

“Honestly I have no idea, because we were shocked” when asked to make changes to her bid, said American Aircraft Maintenance owner Lina Tullburg, who has served John Wayne’s small pilots since 2001.

“We wanted to build more hangars for small aircraft,” she said – and that’s what she thought county supervisors were encouraging with their decision to set aside land exclusively for small planes.

Airport Director Barry Rondinella was not available for comment Friday, Aug. 7, an airport spokeswoman said in an email, but he offered the written explanation that when airport staff reviewed the bids, “they determined that the proposals exceeded the parameters” of the environmental report, so bidders were given the chance to fix them.

The pilots’ proposed solution is to write a requirement into leases for the winning bidders to build out the small-plane area to accommodate the current mix of aircraft sizes. Still Protecting Our Newport board member Nancy Alston said her group is backing the pilots in that request.

“We want preservation of the balance of small planes to jets” to limit noise, she said, and they’d also like general aviation operations to follow the overnight curfew that governs commercial flights at John Wayne; they’re opposed to a potential new terminal to serve general aviation activities.

The county’s airport commission on Thursday voted to recommend that supervisors adopt the pilots’ proposed lease restrictions.

Craig said he understands some people may shrug at the pilots’ consternation because “people aren’t too sympathetic to guys that own their own airplanes.”

But, he added, “the real issue is if they evict us, there are going to be more jets with more noise impact and pollution to the surrounding communities.”

Source: Orange County Register

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