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Commentary : Technology Is Airport's Answer

October 04, 1987|ROBERT E. BADHAM | Robert E. Badham is a Republican congressman from Newport Beach who represents the 40th District.

For most of the past 25 years, Orange County/John Wayne Airport has been controversial. While most of the controversy has been related to commercial and private jet air transportation, there have been other problems, such as surface traffic congestion, terminal space and air traffic safety.

Throughout the years, many questions have been raised in the surrounding communities. The most-asked questions are: why is the airport there in the first place, and why can't it be moved someplace else?

Many years ago, what is now Fountain Valley was selected as a site for an airport that would have an unobstructed path to the sea. That, though, was when Fountain Valley was bean fields. Before anything was done, Orange County's booming population built houses across those fields. With that opportunity lost, the next option was to look for a suitable site for jet aircraft. That, of course, began the seemingly never-ending series of studies to find a site for a regional airport.

Always, the studies have focused on moving the present airport site. Unfortunately, that is not a viable proposal. Politically, moving the airport wouldn't work because four of the five supervisors (members of the body that "owns" the airport) don't want a new airport in their districts, and the fifth cannot derive any political advantage from relocating the airport to another part of the same district.

Economically, the movement of the airport would also prove to be infeasible. For the airport to be sold, dismantled and moved would cost more than the involved public entities could or would afford.

Geographically, there is not space in Orange County for another airport of the size necessary to meet the needs of the population, with the possible exception of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

El Toro is a site that is considered impossible for a "joint use" or a commercial airport. The main runways head toward mountains and are designed for high-performance military aircraft.

El Toro has its economic problems too, in that if (and only if) El Toro could be sold, the proceeds would go not to the Marines for another base, but to the Treasury--which would leave the Marines with no base and no money.

Politically, there is strong opposition by the residents near El Toro and Tustin to any type of commercial air traffic at the base.

What is the solution? The answer lies in progress and technology, not in geography.

One day soon, we will have the benefit of aircraft that can carry more than 100 passengers for more than 1,000 miles at more than 500 m.p.h. and contain the noise and particulate fallout to the perimeter of the airport itself.

So will the airport move? No. Will the airport expand? Yes, but only when technology is available to allow such expansion without causing more problems for residents near the airport. The good news is that the technology to allow expansion will be available sooner than most people think.

The next generation of aircraft will use a new type of engine called ultra-high bypass. Although testing is not complete on the new engine, it is more than likely that it will be quieter than today's quietest standard engines. Meanwhile, another group, the Airport Site Coalition, is ready to begin yet another search for an airport site. However, this group's goal is to find an airport to augment John Wayne, not replace it.

There is no doubt that the coalition's task will be difficult. If the group can find a parcel big enough and in a safe, convenient location, it will be surprising. If it can overcome certain political opposition to a new airport, it will be amazing.

By the time any new airport is completed, technology will no doubt be available to eliminate most of the complaints about John Wayne.

New air traffic control systems and collision avoidance systems, using modern computer technology, will dramatically reduce, if not eliminate, the chance of a midair collision. The new terminal John Wayne will receive, with its new overpasses and ramps to serve the airport, will cut down on traffic problems.

The big issue for nearby residents--the noise issue--will be quieted by new technology.

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