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John Wayne Airport’s Terminal C takes flight

The 282,000-square-foot addition to Orange County’s air travel hub was completed ahead of schedule and $100 million under budget.

By Steve ChurmPublished: November 14, 2011 09:25 AM

A new era in Orange County air travel took flight early today with the first departures from John Wayne Airport’s Terminal C, the newest passenger facility at the 73-year-old airfield and the centerpiece of a two-year $543 million makeover.

The ticket counters in the shiny new 282,000-square-foot terminal opened at 5 a.m., marking a major milestone in the airport improvement project that finished ahead of schedule and about $100 million under budget. Airport officials contend the additional terminal, security checkpoint, state-of-the-art baggage claim area and an adjacent five-story, 2,200-space parking structure elevates to the facility to world-class status for a midsize, regional airport.

“Orange County is one of most dynamic business markets in the country,” said Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, standing in Terminal C on Sunday moments after helping dedicate the new facility in front of 200 airport, county and construction officials and executives. “Our business community needs an airport like this. The county wanted to show the business community that we are partners in this economy.”

For now, Southwest Airlines is going to be the major anchor airline operating in the new terminal. Greg Wells, senior vice president of operations, told the invitation-only gathering seated in and around the baggage carousels Sunday that “This marks another huge step in confirming” JWA as a premier facility in America’s air transportation grid.

Wells used the occasion to announce that Southwest, through its recently acquired Air Tran, has initiated the approval process to become the first carrier to occupy two of JWA’s new international gates for flights to Cabo San Lucas and Mexico City by June of next year. Orange County officials built three international gates and a U.S. Custom’s and Border Protection processing facility in hopes of attracting an airline to offer flights south of the border. Wells said Southwest is working with both U.S. and Mexican authorities to get approval for the routes, a process he said “by all indications should be a mere formality. We are very confident that we will be in the air from JWA to Mexico by next summer.”

In recent weeks, there had been speculation—and concern—about which airline might be first to test this market out of JWA. Wells said Sunday following the dedication that he expects competitors, like Alaska Airlines, which flies to Mexico from Los Angeles International Airport, to now take a closer look at the viability and demand to do the same from JWA. “We’re breaking ground on this international service,” Wells said. “Others are bound to follow.”

Bill Campbell, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said the airport project not only was delivered under budget, it created 600 jobs and pumped several million dollars into the local economy. He called the timing of the project “near perfect” because falling construction prices allowed the county to benefit on the expense side and the economic stimulus has been essential to helping keep Orange County’s unemployment the lowest in California.

Visually, the new terminal is similar in architecture and finish from the carpet to the tile and beige color palette. It’s why Moorlach called Terminal C “seamless and consistent” as he praised the design and construction work.

Although today is historic for JWA, not all county residents cheer the presence and the expansion of the airport facilities. The target of lawsuits from cities and groups living near or under the flight path in the past, JWA and county officials are mindful of their contentiousness that still simmers over airport operations.

“It’s not a perfect solution to our air travel needs,” Moorlach said. “I understand those under the flight path have ongoing worries and concerns. But this county needs a first-class facility, and this airport is vital to our economic future. It is a balance, and we do the best we can.”

For years, frequent flyers have asked for a more diverse menu of amenities, including better food choices and offerings. The new terminal will ultimately address those critics with the arrival of a Ruby’s Diner, Zov’s Bistro, Café and Bakery and a quick-service version of Javier’s Mexican food. There will also be an Anaheim Ducks hockey-themed restaurant and bar. These restaurants, airport officials said Sunday, will come online and start serving over the next few weeks.

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