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The FAA and El Toro

July 19, 1998

Recently, two reports prepared for the county offered assurances that jets could take off safely from a new El Toro commercial airport if they followed the preferred departure patterns to the east and north.

Soon after the most recent report, the nation's largest airline pilots union stated its concerns about the proposal. Saying that it was worried about jets clearing terrain to the north and east, it called on the county to scrap its current tarmac design of two north-south and two east-west runways.

The pilots' proposal would undo the county plan for 70% departures to the east and 30% to the north. They have urged two north-south runways that are longer and more widely separated than the plan under consideration. The county lost no time in criticizing the idea, saying it would undermine the plan to have takeoffs in the vicinity of sparsely populated hills. Given concerns about cost and noise, the pilots' plan was judged unacceptable because it would greatly increase the number of communities affected by flights and would require substantial new and costly construction.

The debate is part of a larger Ping-Pong match over El Toro flight patterns that has been playing out, with the Marine base slated to close next year. Whether a commercial airport largely would be a "turnkey" operation, and whether preferred flight plans would be safe, has been haggled over in a long-running public debate. It might have been reasonable to expect that basic assumptions about runway directions and safety considerations would have been established by now.

But with the master planning process going forward, a bewildered public still really has little conclusive material about whether what the county plans to do is safe aviation. Moreover, the stated intentions of Orange County's political leadership notwithstanding, entire communities remain in the dark about whether they will be directly affected by flights. This far into the process, nobody can say what those flight patterns will be.

This is so because, as many now understand, in the end it really will not be the county that determines operational flight patterns. The Federal Aviation Administration will decide how this airport operates. However, the FAA regards the ongoing base reuse process, and in particular local master planning, as critical to its ability to decide on arrivals and departures.

There's the rub. The county is planning an airport, asserting its interest in implementing the least disruptive flight patterns. The people who really will decide won't do so until all the data are in. Is there any way out of the maze?

The county and the interested public clearly need more help in sorting out the runway safety question. The FAA doesn't have to endorse an airport plan prematurely, but it can do more to aid in the formulation of an educated decision on whether an El Toro airport is feasible or politically viable. A general statement on operating conditions in view of terrain, runway configuration and prevailing winds would be clarifying for planners, community leaders and the public.

In the absence of this information, Orange County supervisors are essentially our pilots and navigators for the time being. It is they, through their delegates in the airport planning process, who must weigh competing claims about runway plans in a highly charged political environment.

So where has the FAA been? In a response to concerns raised about the FAA and its role on El Toro by Donald R. Segner, a former agency associate administrator, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey earlier this year noted that such issues as safety, noise and operational plans would be evaluated through the base reuse planning process. The FAA was assuming the role of a "cooperating agency." Also, the FAA justified the diversion of nearly $7 million in local John Wayne Airport revenues for El Toro planning on the grounds that the need for additional regional airport capacity is long established.

No doubt, it may be wise politics and sound procedure for the FAA to promote aviation planning but to avoid definitive judgment on any flight plan until it has a final proposal before it. The agency did express concerns to the county in April 1996 about proposed northerly takeoffs. The observation that they could conflict with existing regional air traffic has received the attention of proponents seeking to resolve such problems and of those opposed to the airport entirely.

However, the bottom line is that El Toro is highly controversial, and the FAA is not now the critical voice it might be in shaping the takeoffs and landings question. It recognizes a stake in regional transportation solutions, and no doubt will weigh in when it deems appropriate. In the meantime, however, it stands largely apart in the process from the painful decision making on the ground.

Meanwhile, concerns about El Toro flight patterns are raising an important question for the industry: whether the design of an airport could be a factor in compromised public safety. This is not just an Orange County issue. At the same time, a deeply interested local populace has been listening to the consultants and pilots, not hesitating to draw its own conclusions.

Since El Toro has been operating as a military airport, it is not as if information on terrain, wind direction and regional traffic patterns is new. Whatever the FAA can do now to shed more light on how an airport actually would operate would be most welcome.

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