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JOHN WAYNE AIRPORT : Where Embalmed Palms Grace a 'Sterile Zone'

September 04, 1990|DIANNE KLEIN

The new Thomas F. Riley Terminal at John Wayne Airport is very manly, in a bland, non-threatening, Irvine sort of way.

It is beige, mostly. And gray. With no jewelry.

If it were a person, it could sell life insurance. If it were an animal, it would be a golden retriever--fixed, of course, with all its vaccinations up-to-date.

But it's a terminal. So it numbs you, gently. Like a Marriott hotel.

Which, don't get me wrong, is fine. Nice and controlled. If you like that sort of thing.

Here birds will not roost, nor deposit any surprises, on the bronze head of John Wayne. His 9-foot likeness--a commanding presence in the terminal's "meet and greet area"--has been brought in from the smog, colorized and "antiqued."

"His family is very pleased," said the airport's public relations person, Courtney Wiercioch, as we toured the building the other day.

Now, there will be no more of those Third-Worldish group safaris from your plane, across the taxiway and into the terminal. Loading bridges, the accordion walkways you've seen in all the really sophisticated places--like El Paso, Tex.--have taken care of that.

And that funky little bar with the perilously unsecure balcony at the old terminal? That will not be tolerated here.

Or maybe I've just gotten the wrong idea about this place.

This could be because I toured it before The Public--that means you--had a stab at gumming things up. There wasn't a Hare Krishna or a Jew for Jesus or a pro-nuke pamphleteer in sight.

But, still, I did pick up some clues as to what could be in store should you attempt to get a little too familiar with the inanimate Thomas F. Riley.

Take the palm trees, for instance.

These are the only bit of greenery in the so-called "sterile zone" (their words, not mine) beyond the metal detectors.

Maintenance of the fickle palms in the Host International Food and Beverage Services area--how's that for a snappy name?--was deemed a potential problem.

Potential problems, especially when it involves a $62-million terminal already megabucks over budget and months behind schedule, are unwelcome.

So, according to Courtney, the trees were embalmed, shot up the spine with some sort of freeze drying fluid and voila! instant petrified forest.

Now the trunks have the look and feel of an armadillo's skin. A fake armadillo's skin.

But, I don't know, maybe I'm overreacting.

Who says that dining under palm corpses will throw a pall over the "tropical" ambience those innovators at Host International Food and Beverage Services are hoping to attain?

And, truth be told, the restaurant arches with the orange neon zigzagging lights are a pretty wild and crazy touch. I mean, of course, within the confines of the sterile zone.

So, what the heck, for a minute there, while gazing at those arches, I let myself go with the flow. Nostalgia soon overtook me, right smack in the middle of the tour, and I began recalling other tropical airport ambiences I have known.

Havana--great rum. Nicaragua--rum, again. San Juan, Dominica, Guadalupe, Martinique. . . . Yeah, right, more rum.

Then I thought of Tegucigalpa's airport, where some great thinker--probably steeled on rum--came up with the human siphon method of passenger boarding.

This method is employed at several other airports throughout the world, but nowhere have I seen it executed with the gusto of the Hondurans.

All it requires is an airline employee--probably one who is easily expendable--to unlock a door leading to the taxiway so that passengers can push, shove and squeeze their way past. Whoever survives is obviously fit to.

There will be none of that at the Thomas F. Riley, of course. That's what Courtney said, and I tell you, I believe her. Nor should there be, I hasten to add. This is America, Orange County-style. Where anarchy has a bad rap.

So I sobered up, posthaste, and the airport tour marched on.

Now Courtney was leading the way past the state-of-the-art men's bathrooms. Or so she said.

I ducked inside for a look and there, sure enough, were what she had promised: the self-flushing urinals that think they are so smart. But I tricked them. They worked for me too.

(Ladies, however, take note. As I said, this is a man's airport. They didn't spring for the self-flushers on our side of the pipes--although, ahem, the women of Dallas-Ft. Worth have had these wonders for years.)

But Orange County's new terminal, Courtney went on, has other things of which to boast. She rattled off a few more significant facts about earthquake proofing, the convenience of the parking lots and stuff of that ilk.

Then, however, something she said sent a bit of a chill down my spine.

"The temperature control is so powerful in here," she intoned, "that you could actually close all the doors and use it as a meat locker."

So you see? They've thought of the possibility before. Here the operative words are cool, calculated and controlled.

Think of those freeze-dried palm trees. They were a warning, straight from central control.

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