John Wayne Airport launched its first major expansion in 13 years Monday with the inauguration of three additional airlines and up to 14 additional flights, culminating a long and bitter struggle to expand Orange County air service in the face of heavy opposition from airport neighbors.
The interim expansion--the first step in a $150-million master plan that will eventually bring 73-flight-per-day jet service to Orange County--marks a major victory for airlines long seeking to tap the lucrative Orange County market and business groups seeking improved air transportation. County officials estimate the 14 new flights, serving an additional 800 passengers a day, will bring 4,000 full-time jobs and nearly a third of a billion dollars in annual income to Orange County.
But the expansion also represents a substantial setback for the community of Newport Beach, which won a court order three years ago establishing a limit of 41 flights and which has launched a last-minute attempt to have Monday's expansion ruled in contempt of the earlier court order.
While county officials in recent years have been stymied in efforts to expand air service because of limited parking and a terminal already handling seven times the passengers it was built for, the reality Monday was that the additional flights were accommodated without incident.
Despite a two-hour delay on Continental Airlines' inaugural flight to Houston and a vocal demonstration by striking Continental employees shouting warnings at boarding passengers, the mood was a celebratory one, a day of popping champagne corks, three-piece bands and ceremonial ribbon-cuttings.
"Congestion? What congestion? We've got room for more!" airport manager Murry Cable exclaimed as he gazed out at the mammoth Boeings and MD-80s, swarming with passengers, looming placidly on the airport ramp.
'Need This Desperately'
Robert Waller of U.S.D. Corp., representing the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, called it "a red letter day" for the county. "We need this thing desperately," he said. "I'm a businessman, and we've always been hampered having to run up to L.A. to make our flights, and we think this is the beginning of allowing our business community to progress."
Said Tom Talbot, board chairman of Jet America, which launched two new flights to Chicago: "We have been looking forward to this day since we started our airline three years ago. This is a culmination of one of our major corporate goals."
America West is offering three daily flights to Phoenix, and Continental has scheduled two flights to Houston which go on to Washington, D.C., in the morning and New York's La Guardia Airport in the afternoon--the first one-plane service to those cities available from Orange County.
Continental was the focus of attention during the early morning rush hour, when dozens of striking Continental employees picketed the terminal building and then climbed up to a terminal balcony to continue their demonstration as the airline's morning departures began.
Tom Russell, a striking pilot and spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Assn., said the striking pilots, flight attendants and mechanics--supported Monday by the Orange County Central Labor Council--hoped to alert passengers to Continental's "April Fool on Orange County."
Union officials distributed leaflets proclaiming, "A lemon should be squeezed, not flown," detailing the carrier's financial problems (the strike began after Continental filed for reorganization under federal bankruptcy laws and suspended negotiations with employees) and alleged safety violations.
Handing out news accounts of incidents involving Continental in recent months, including a hard landing that damaged an aircraft but went unreported for several days and an accidental landing on a Denver taxiway by a plane carrying the airline's board chairman, Russell said: "We want to make sure that the people down at John Wayne are aware of, one, the way the airline does business, and to show also what we think is a record showing a definite deterioration in the level of safety in their operation."
Continental Capt. Don Duffer, who struck for six weeks but then decided to return to work, called the union's allegations "amazing." "The FAA looks over our shoulder in everything we do. Because we're under a microscope today, we know we have to hire very capable and qualified people," said Duffer, noting that many of the striking pilots had less experience when they joined the airline than many pilots hired after the strike.
Weather Causes Delay
The airline's premiere flight to Houston, scheduled for 7:55 a.m., was delayed after
its crew encountered bad weather the previous day and didn't arrive at Los Angeles until much later than expected. Federal regulations specify a minimum rest time for crew members, which eventually led to a two-hour delay in the Orange County flight, airline spokesmen said.