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JOHN WAYNE AIRPORT : A New Age : $310-Million Airport Expansion to Propel County Into Aviation's Fast Lanes With More Daily Flights, a Wider Selection of Destinations and Double the Number of Passengers

September 04, 1990|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob Ward had heard a lot about the wealth and high-tech opulence of Orange County. So the 45-year-old Seattle businessman was a bit taken aback when he landed at John Wayne Airport recently, only to discover "the kind of airport you'd find in Hawaii 20 years ago--on the outlying islands."

A few yards away, across a crowded, dusty, concrete-floored baggage terminal with a one-line-fits-all conveyor belt, a poster advised: "Hang in there! Our new terminal is under construction!"

Through years of lawsuits, design snafus and cost overruns, that promise taunted harried travelers like so much idle talk. But this week, as community leaders formally inaugurate a prominent pathway to the skies to match their growing economic muscle, the poster can finally come down.

Sixty-seven years after Eddie Martin, the late aviation pioneer, first offered $5 joy rides from a vacant Irvine Ranch lot, the county is getting a virtually rebuilt, $310-million airport--to the excitement of many, to the relief of some and to the frustration of others.

Public use of the cramped, 23-year-old Edward J. "Eddie" Martin Terminal ceases late on the night of Sept. 15, replaced the following morning by a cavernous, $62-million, domed passenger hall--the Thomas F. Riley Terminal--that is 12 times as big.

The old open-air parking lot, enclosed in a chain-link fence, has given way to twin, multilevel garages flanking the new terminal, plus a third garage in front that stretches half a mile--the longest parking garage in North America, the county's project managers say.

The rickety, portable stairs that passengers climbed to their planes have been scrapped in favor of $3 million worth of modern "jetways," covered loading bridges that telescope from the new terminal's 14 gates directly to the aircraft.

And the former cuisine offered at a single, tiny snack shop and restaurant has been swapped for McDonald's french fries, Pizza Hut pan pizzas, chocolate truffles, croissants and a bevy of other foodstuffs at new restaurants. Down to the most mundane of details--the automated urinals in the men's room, for instance, which flush themselves when the user walks away--the biggest public works project in county history smacks of modernization.

Even the Duke, the airport namesake himself, could not escape the county's headlong rush into the 21st Century. The John Wayne statue, once a uniform copper tint, has been colorized a la Ted Turner films--replete with a rusty red shirt, a black bandanna, dark khaki pants and dark gray cowboy hat--for its move indoors to the new terminal.

But once the freshness wears off, what's left? More daily flights and a wider selection of destinations? Almost certainly. Lower fares? Probably not. More noise? Residents fear so.

Seen by some travel agents as a "boutique" airport because of its high use for business travel, John Wayne has long had consistently higher fares than other Southland airports. Even though the new terminal will see a near-doubling of the annual limit on fliers to 8.4 million and a marked increase in daily flights to about 160, it will not prompt any real closure of that price gap, according to airline officials.

What it will mean, instead, industry officials predict, is a new-found respect for Orange County in the eyes of travelers whose first glance of the area until now had been an eyesore.

As a symbol of the county's swift progress, the new airport "gives us a whole different dimension," Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder said. "L.A. will have to sit up and take notice. . . . What the Performing Arts Center did for Orange County in that realm, this will do for commerce."

Added Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, for whom the new terminal is named: "For visitors, the new terminal is a great introduction to the county's cultural and economic status. I think it will be the most exciting airport--maybe in the whole world. It's the state of the art."

But the airport has not come without a heavy toll--financial and otherwise.

If the new terminal's grand opening is a milestone in the development of a county once thought of as a quiet refuge from Los Angeles, some county leaders say it is also a test of how far local residents are willing to let that development go.

The new facility marks what Ken Delino, a Newport Beach city official active in airport debates over the years, called "the culmination of the great compromise."

For years, the county found itself caught in the middle of a tense battle between residents who sought to halt the airport's growth around them and airlines that saw a burgeoning market and wanted a bigger piece of it.

Under terms of a 1985 court settlement in which Newport Beach accepted the current expansion in exchange for a limit on future airport growth, John Wayne remains one of the most tightly regulated airports in the country, with restrictions on noise, flights, aircraft use and nighttime flying. Even so, Central County residents who live in the airport's shadow are worried about the price of progress.

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