The cars come roaring off the San Diego Freeway, or barreling down MacArthur Boulevard, headed for John Wayne Airport and the plane they can catch only if everything breaks just right--a fantastic parking space, no lines, a quick check of the baggage.
All right! There it is, on MacArthur, the international symbol for an airport: white airplanes on a green background. But wait, what's this? Hey, it's an additional sign, a perfect symbol for today's John Wayne Airport: "Detour."
At a crosswalk on the road heading to the main terminal building, a bus shuttling passengers from outlying parking lots to the terminals stops abruptly. No one can see around the bus. Eventually the driver crosses the road to another shuttle bus and hands its driver a piece of paper. Car drivers fume. Shuttle driver No. 1 finally reboards and drives on.
Drivers hunting for spaces prowl the new parking structure, slowly passing tiny, hard-to-read signs that direct them higher and higher. "Caution, Level 4," reads a warning as the driver emerges from mole-befitting darkness into blinding light to finally find a space--on the roof, in the baking heat. Only one of the three elevators is working and all of them are at the end of the 200-yard-long building farthest from the terminal.
Great. Just Great.
Construction at John Wayne has been going on for a year and a half now, in an attempt to replace the facility's resemblance to a Third World airport with a facade a bit more suitable to the state's third most populous county. A new $50-million terminal is the centerpiece of the $310-million expansion program. More than 12,000 passengers arrive and depart through the main terminal on an average day now. After the expansion is completed, the numbers will gradually increase to about double the current level.
But despite what a taxi driver termed "chaos," and remembering that the airport was never a prize in the first place, how far downhill you think things have careened since construction began depends largely on where you stand.
Coming down on the side of gloom is Deputy Sheriff Keith Davis, who supervises the officers who make sure that no one climbs the fences onto the tarmac and that drivers don't double-park for ridiculously long periods.
"It's a mess," Davis says in the long, narrow control room with flashing lights, numerous buttons and television monitors showing what's going on outside the terminal. "It's just a lot more traffic. You've got the parking lot closures and what have you, due to the construction." In addition, some airlines have added a new type of aircraft, the Boeing 757, bringing more passengers in than in the old days. "It's like two planes coming in now instead of one because of the passenger loads."
On the two-lane, one-way road that passes in front of the terminal, there aren't many spaces for people to pick up or drop off passengers, and the few metered parking spots just beyond the terminal are almost always full at peak times.
"There's no place to park to pick up the people," says Davis. "They just drive around in circles until (passengers being picked up) get their loads out of the baggage claim area. They don't really appear to us to be parking in the parking structure to walk over to the terminal to meet their arriving passenger. They just drive around until the (arriving passengers) show up on the curb." Still, passengers and those meeting them "are pretty good," Davis says. "I think most people realize the situation, the way it is. You just have to live with it."
Skycap William Pratt, in navy blue trousers and matching hat, white shirt looking crisp despite the heat, glides over to passengers emerging from a car in front of the terminal and starts to check their baggage.
One bag, three, eight, it doesn't matter much to Pratt. He'll use a dolly when he can, hoisting the bags on after he tags them, then wheeling them in to the baggage belt of whatever airline the passenger is flying. If it's busy and some of his colleagues have the dollies tied up, he'll grab a bag or two and simply manhandle them into the terminal.
Pratt leaves his Fullerton home each day around 5 a.m. for the 25-minute drive to the airport and a shift that lasts until 2 p.m. His minuet with the luggage never seems hurried; he just sort of glides from curbside to baggage belt, staying calm, not saying much, getting the luggage where it's supposed to go.
"It's rushed," he says as passengers swirl around him on the sidewalk outside. "Travelers are . . . going all over." Any problems due to construction? "No, it'd be like this regardless."
Eight years ago he decided that being a full-time trumpet player wasn't going to get it; he became a Skycap. Compared to hefting a trumpet, "this is work, " he says. At the end of the day, though, despite handling bags and packages of freight that can weigh upward of 100 pounds, he claims not to be worn out. "Naw, I'm a man, " he says.