SANTA ANA — After years of segregating helicopters from other aircraft at John Wayne Airport, county airport officials have requested a study of the possibility of putting heliport operations near the new passenger terminal.
The move would enable charter and commuter helicopter companies to operate on the east side of the airport, probably from an old terminal that had been emptied for use as a general aviation facility when the new commercial passenger terminal opened last year.
Airport officials' request for an economic study of general aviation operations and use of the old terminal building was unanimously endorsed earlier this week by the county Airport Commission, which recommended that county supervisors approve the request at their April 23 meeting.
The action comes nearly two years after Helitrans, the county's only scheduled helicopter commuter service, originally asked permission to operate from the passenger terminal.
"I'm happier than I've been in two years," said Les Smith, president of the Long Beach-based company, which runs nine daily flights from the privately owned Centerport heliport facility on the west side of the airport.
Several charter helicopter service operators said in brief interviews Thursday that they were unaware of the proposed study but expressed full support for it.
"We want anything that promotes helicopter transportation at the airport," said Doug Daigle, president of Tridair Helicopters Inc. in Costa Mesa. The company is the largest charter helicopter operator in the county and is the owner of the Centerport facility. "It would be very appropriate to have helicopter operations near the new terminal," he said.
Steve Ford, chief pilot for HeliStream Inc., a helicopter charter and flight training company in Costa Mesa, said he is encouraged to hear that airport officials appear willing to listen to suggestions from helicopter firms.
"In most cases, helicopters seem to be an afterthought. We have not been asked to participate in planning (of airport facilities) even though helicopter service is of great benefit to short-range passengers."
Ford said his company would consider offering scheduled flights if helicopter services are allowed on the terminal side of the airport.
Passengers switching from commercial jets or commuter planes to helicopters now must travel several miles around the airport to enter Centerport or other helicopter facilities.
Airport officials have been concerned about mixing helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft traffic, particularly in the commuter area of the new terminal where passengers must still walk onto the runway to board planes.
"There is worry about the effect of helicopter rotor wash on planes and passengers," airport spokeswoman Courtney Wiercioch said. Rotor wash is the term for the high ground-level wind whirling helicopter rotors make.
But after listening to Smith's arguments about the growing demand for helicopter commuter service to other airports and to resort spots such as Catalina Island, airport officials asked Smith several months ago whether he would be interested in a facility at the old terminal. (The old terminal is about half a mile south of the new one.)