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Ready for takeoff

by jerry hicksPublished: November 01, 2011

From a single airstrip in the 1920s to a commercial airport that just piloted a $500 million improvement project, John Wayne Airport is now boarding.

John Wayne Airport is about to get bigger – by a bunch – and no doubt better. More gates, more parking. More staff, more food. More room. More convenience, airport officials say.
“Travelers will see the change immediately,” says Airport Director Alan Murphy. “Everything will be less congested.”
On Monday, Nov. 14, John Wayne Airport will open its mammoth, half-billion-dollar, eagerly anticipated Terminal C, located just south of the adjacent Terminal B. That means six new gates – 20 instead of 14. It means that JWA will be ready should the economy take off and the number of annual passengers reaches near the maximum capacity of 10.8 million, a figure that the city of Newport Beach and area residents have agreed on through 2015. It also means that the airport can now add its first flights to both Mexico and Central America.
It’s not just a boost for travelers. Local economic leaders call it big-picture great – more dollars pumped into the community, more appeal to the business world and a reputation fitting of Orange County.
“If you’re the sixth-largest county in America, then you’d better have a first-class airport,” says Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach. “This new terminal is going to help guarantee that.”
In a study conducted for the airport last year, the Orange County Business Council estimated that $1.2 billion will be pumped into the local economy. That’s $2 for every dollar spent in the construction of Terminal C. The council’s president and CEO, Lucy Dunn, boldly predicts: “Orange County has the lowest unemployment in the state, and it has the best economic engines to drive California out of this recession. The change at John Wayne Airport is one of those engines. I recently took a tour of the new terminal. It’s fantastic.”
Other noted economic experts who aren’t always so positive about the county’s financial picture concur about John Wayne.
“This is a win-win for Orange County,” says Esmael Adibi, director of Chapman University’s A. Gary Anderson Center for Research and one of the state’s most respected economic forecasters. “More money for the economy, more jobs and, perhaps at some point, lower fares at the airport, which means we won’t be heading to LAX so often.”
Mira Farka, associate director of the Institute for Economics and Environmental Studies at Cal State Fullerton, calls the expansion “forward-looking and timely.” She explains: “While flight and trade volumes fell during the ’08-’09 crisis, they have picked up and are expected to improve further in the coming years.”

Farka also predicts it will mean not just more dollars. Her prediction is closer to a $2 billion impact, which will result in a boost in tourism, plus more jobs.
“On the labor side,” Farka says, “the project is expected to generate between 4,500 and 6,700 jobs, primarily in construction, engineering and other support.”
That’s on top of the 400 jobs already created just for the construction of the new terminal and upgrades to the rest of the airport.
Terminal C, similar in design to the other two terminals, will add 282,000 square feet, just 60,000 square feet short of the other two terminals combined. All three are in a linear design, like a long rifle barrel. But you can also look at it as three small airports; each of the three terminals has its own parking garage (with 2,200 additional spots for the five-story Terminal C garage). In addition, a Terminal C parking expansion is on the books, in the event of an increased demand.
Murphy, the airport director, emphasizes that JWA will never meet everybody’s travel needs. Its 500 acres are limited by urban development. That means it can never have the runways suitable for the large jets necessary for international destinations such as Europe or Japan. Its runway length is now at about 5,700 feet; those overseas flights need a minimum of 8,000 feet to accommodate larger jets.
Even so, Murphy believes the airport will be a welcome benefit to most Orange County travelers for years to come. At its peak, it was handling 10 million passengers annually, almost maxing out the 10.3 million ceiling that existed up through 2010. But in the recession years, those numbers fell to well under 9 million annual passengers.

For now, the airport will host the same number of airlines: 10. But that might change in a few months. Two of the new gates will connect to federal inspection services to accommodate added destinations of Mexico and Central America (Murphy mentions Costa Rica as a possibility). The airport might pick up new airlines for those flights. U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities are built into the Terminal C design.
“We haven’t made a decision, but there’s no shortage of interest from other airlines,” Murphy says. “And we certainly know there is traveler interest.”
One decision left to be made: whether flights to Mexico would be to tourist destinations, such as Cabo San Lucas or Cancun, or to satisfy business travel, with service to places such as Mexico City.
John Wayne added flights to Canada last year. Dunn notes that the new flights south of the border are long overdue.
“The two biggest out-of-country markets for Orange County business are Canada and Mexico,” she says.
When Dunn took her tour of the airport, she was especially impressed with the latest technology in baggage handling in Terminal C. Indeed, all its facilities, from gates to kiosks, offer the latest in airport technology.
But changes haven’t been limited to building a new terminal. Upgrades are also taking place in Terminals A and B.
“When the terminals were built 20 years ago, there were changes in technology we couldn’t have anticipated,” Murphy says.
We have cellphones and laptop computers, and today there are better ways to provide electronic information 
to passengers. The new terminal has all the necessary connections for travelers who use laptops or hand-held high-tech gadgets, and now upgrades are taking place in the older terminals. Also: For easier check-in, a new system, called CUPPS (common use passenger processing system), will be installed. That means you can look at any electronic kiosk and find any flight you need – not just those for a particular airline service.
In addition, a new credit card system in the parking structures was recently installed. With the new system, the amount of time that you have parked is automatically calculated on your card. There’s also a new electronic system for all the parking garages that will allow visitors to know which level of the structure has the greatest number of empty spots available.
The airport is also upgrading all of the original 14 boarding bridges to match those of the new terminal. Add to that a new central utility plant to assure reliable temperature control throughout the airport.
Terminal C will also include a new security checkpoint system that airport officials believe will be more convenient for passengers. It will have five regular screening checkpoints. But should any passenger need a follow-up check, he or she would go through AIT – advanced imaging technology. It’s almost like an x-ray machine, but it can pick up in clear imaging any item on a passenger that violates airport security. This avoids the “pat down” by hand that some passengers are subjected to in the other terminals at JWA. AIT will eventually be installed at those terminals, too.

“This is something that’s been rolling out all over the country,” said Jenny Wedge, the airport’s public relations manager. “We think it will be a much smoother transition for passengers.”
One major change should please just about everybody: more eateries throughout the airport – about $22 million worth, nearly double the existing concession space. Almost all will be on the “secure side” (surveys show that’s where they’re needed most), with a major dining center located where passengers leave Terminal B to enter Terminal C. Dining newcomers include popular venues such as California Pizza Kitchen, Hobie Sand Bar and Ciao’s Gourmet Market. A food square in the new terminal will include Farmer’s Market by Laguna Culinary and a Ruby’s Diner. An Anaheim Ducks Breakaway Bar & Grill in the new terminal overlooks the runways.
“Our surveys show us that more places to eat has been a major priority for Orange County travelers,” says Wedge. “We’re going to give it to them, first class.”
Whatever becomes a new favorite feature for airport travelers, Murphy says the airport does its best, with its limited acreage, to serve the future needs of Orange County residents.
“We’re convinced the people of this county are going to be proud of what they see on November 14,” he says.
Who could have dreamed this could happen when aviation pioneer Eddie Martin squatted his Jenny biplane on unused Irvine Co. land, just north of what is now the airport, in the mid-1920s? The Irvine family didn’t charge him, because Irvine Co. members were fascinated with flying. Eventually, Martin did sign a lease. The county took over in a land swap with the Irvine Co. in 1939, built a new runway at the present location in 1941, then lost the airport almost immediately to the military after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. After the war, the first commercial flights came in the 1950s. But even as late as 1982, a terminal, eventually named after Eddie Martin, was built for just 400,000 annual passengers. County officials at the time were satisfied that this would suffice for years to come. But the county’s population boom in the 1980s and 1990s made that assessment obsolete.
The new Thomas F. Riley Terminal was built in 1990 to serve a future capacity of 8.4 million annual passengers, which was a ceiling agreed on in meetings between the county, Newport Beach and residents near the airport. (The late County Supervisor Tom Riley had been instrumental in pushing for airport expansion.) But that number was boosted to 10.3 million in a negotiated agreement six years ago. That ceiling moved to 10.8 million this year through 2015. That means plenty of room for new passengers.
So how much will all this expansion cost Orange County taxpayers? Not even the first pretty penny.
“John Wayne Airport has always been self-sufficient,” says Murphy. “We have made enough money from bonds and airline and passenger fees to cover the cost of the new terminal and improvements to our other terminals.” (Some may be unaware that John Wayne Airport receives $4.50 for each enplaned passenger who comes through its doors.)
The cost came in a whole lot cheaper than anyone expected. The airport had allotted some $650 million for the expansion, but bids in the recession were so competitive, the county wound up with a bargain-basement deal, an unanticipated savings of more than $100 million.
“We actually benefited from the slowdown in the economy,” Murphy says. “Contractors wanted the work so bad, they came in with low bids to win the job.”
McCarthy Building Cos. of Newport Beach was the major contractor. Project director Khatchig Tchapadarian points out that most of the work was done between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. to keep the construction impact minimal on the airport’s regular traffic. Every attempt was made to assure that Terminal C had a streamlined look, like the other terminals. In fact, the natural stone used in the work came from the same German quarry where the airport’s original stone was unearthed. Airport officials are convinced that the terminal’s exterior appearance will please the public, especially those who live near the airport.
Murphy believes the settlement agreements with the city of Newport Beach and area residents have been cordial and fair.
“You have to have a balance; the community keeps a sharp eye on us,” he says. “But we believe most of them are pleased with what we’re doing.”
County Supervisor Moorlach warns that some residents will never be happy as long as an airport is even there. Some shudder at hearing talk of the airport’s new “expansion.”
“This is not really an expansion at all,” Moorlach says. “It’s really a remodeling; one that came at a fortuitous time in our economy. We were smart to remodel when we did.”
Moorlach does warn of one drawback to the new airport: “The way it’s designed, it’s like one big mile-long airport,” he said. “If you park at the wrong terminal by accident, you’d better be prepared to run.”
Eddie Martin, the original airport owner who died in 1990, wrote in his autobiography, “Just Call Me Eddie,” that he knew county interest in his airport in the late 1930s was inevitable. But, he noted: “The trouble was, nobody in the county knew how to run an airport.”
You have to wonder what Martin would think of the place now.


Local aviation pioneer Eddie Martin creates the county’s first flying school on an airstrip on Irvine Co. land.

The airport gains its first national attention when movie mogul Howard Hughes crashes (but is unharmed) just a mile north in a beet field while trying to set a world speed record.

Martin sells the airport to his brother, Floyd, for $10, to concentrate on other investments.

The county takes over Martin’s airport in a land swap with the Irvine Co. It starts construction on a runway and improvements less than a mile south of Martin’s airstrip. It’s called the Orange County Airport.

The new Orange County Airport opens in September, but it closes for business soon after the Pearl Harbor attack.

The federal government takes over the airstrip for military use during World War II.

The airport is returned to the county with the stipulation that it remains open for a variety of aircraft.

Bonanza becomes the first airline to operate commercially from the airport, with stops to Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix.

Bonanza makes the first nonstop flight outside California, with daily flights to Phoenix.

Bonanza adds the first flights to Las Vegas.

The first flights to San Francisco are added by Air California. Bonanza begins its first jet flights from the airport.

A 22,000-square-foot terminal is completed to accommodate 400,000 annual travelers. It is later named the Eddie Martin Terminal and expanded to 29,000 square feet in 1982.

Flights to Salt Lake City are added by Hughes Air West.

The airport is renamed John Wayne Airport by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, to honor the actor who lives in Newport Beach.

Flights are added to Denver (Frontier), Dallas-Fort Worth (American) and Chicago (Air California).

The John Wayne 9-foot bronze statue, “the Duke,” is created by sculptor Robert Summers and placed outside the terminal. (It is later moved inside.)

A settlement agreement is reached with Newport Beach and airport neighbors controlling noise levels coming from John Wayne Airport.

The Eddie Martin Terminal is replaced by the new 339,000-square-foot Thomas F. Riley Terminal, with 14 gates and with Terminals A and B. The old terminal is demolished four years later.

The airport introduces new flights to Canada. After a brief suspension of service, Canada flights are resumed in 2011.

Terminal C is added, expanding John Wayne Airport by another 282,000 square feet. Flights to Mexico and Central America are planned.


Just how big is the new Terminal C at John Wayne Airport? Here’s a look at a few of the details regarding its construction:

Structural steel erected: 3,500 tons

Pieces of structural steel: 2,400

Weight of heaviest piece of structural steel: 3.2 tons

Number of piles driven: 576

Length of longest pile: 52 feet

Number of construction workers at peak: 400+

Copper cable: 200 miles

Fiber cable: 35,000 feet

Fiber-optic cable: 10,000 feet of 144-strand fiber-optic cable; that’s 1.44 million linear feet of fiber-optic glass.

Aboveground speaker wire: 40 miles

Underground speaker wire: 10 miles

Data cable: 15 miles

Number of fiber-optic connectors: 2,880


The amount of dining space at John Wayne Airport will almost double, soon after Terminal C opens. Here’s a look at the new lineup:

Marketplace (separating Terminal B and C) (These should be ready for the Terminal C opening, or soon after.):
• avi’s
• Jerry’s Wood-Fired Dogs
• Pei Wei
• Pinkberry
• Zov’s
• Caterina’s Candies
• Subway

Bars/Lounges (These should be ready by the opening, or soon after.):
• California Pizza Kitchen (Terminal A)
• Hobie Sand Bar (Terminal B)
• Anaheim Ducks Breakaway Bar & Grill (Terminal C, overlooking the runway)

Snack Bar/Grab-and-Go:
• Zov’s (Terminal A pre-security)
• La Tapenade Mediterranean Café (Terminal B pre-security)
• Ciao Gourmet Market (Terminal C)

• Starbucks (locations in Terminals A, B and C)

Rotated Square (separating Terminal A and B):
• Farmer’s Market by Laguna Culinary Institute
• Ruby’s Diner
• Ruby’s Grab N’ Go (To be constructed in early 2012.)

• Carl’s Jr./Green Burrito (Terminal C). (This should be ready by the November opening, or soon after.)
• New McDonald’s and McCafé (Terminal A and B)
(Construction to begin in early 2012.)

• Vino Volo (Terminal B)