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Orange County

John Wayne Use Slowly Increasing

Aviation: Passengers and flights are still down 10% from 2000 levels. The airport's ability to maintain its repayment schedule on 1990 bonds is being reviewed.

November 20, 2001|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Passengers and flights at John Wayne Airport are inching closer to normal but remain 10% less than a year ago, with parking revenue sliced by the same amount, according to an analysis to be presented today to county supervisors.

Security costs increased $1.3 million since the September terrorist attacks, according to the report, prepared before Congress voted last week to federalize most baggage and passenger screening employees. President Bush signed the bill Monday.

The Board of Supervisors has been debating for two months whether John Wayne's shaky bottom line justifies restricting or ending the use of reserves to cover the costs of planning an airport at the closed El Toro Marine base.

Wall Street analysts also are reviewing the airport's ability to stick with a repayment schedule for $300 million in bonds sold in 1990 to finance a new terminal.

John Wayne Airport officials said passenger numbers have been rising steadily; the count plunged by a third over September 2000 following the Sept. 11 hijackings. There were just 7.5% fewer passengers using the airport in the first week of November compared to the same period a year ago.

The discussion comes as the airport enters what traditionally has been the busiest travel time of the year: Thanksgiving and the December religious holidays.

"We've talked to the airlines and most of them have said they expect passenger loads to be comparable to last year," airport spokeswoman Ann McCarley said. "That's very heartening."

Last year's heaviest travel days at John Wayne Airport were the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when 27,671 passengers used the airport, and the Sunday afterward, with 28,035 passengers. About 19,000 passengers a day have been using the airport in recent weeks, according to county figures.

The airport's hefty underwriting of El Toro--$40 million since 1996--caused enough worry a year ago for officials to warn that the drain couldn't continue without jeopardizing the airport's ambitious schedule for repaying bonds on its terminal, which opened in 1990.

"I've seen nothing new that tells me we shouldn't suspend" spending from John Wayne Airport on El Toro, Supervisor Todd Spitzer said Monday. But he said he would wait until next month to raise the issue again, when Airport Manager Alan Murphy has been asked to present a more comprehensive financial report.

Murphy has been providing weekly updates, such as the one to be presented today, for the last month at the request of supervisors. Spitzer joined Supervisor Tom Wilson this month in calling for a halt on spending John Wayne revenues on anything unrelated to the airfield's operations until a clearer picture of its finances emerged.

Supervisors Cynthia P. Coad, Chuck Smith and Jim Silva--who support building the new airport--voted against a freeze, saying such drastic action was premature.

Murphy said he will provide a longer-term revenue prediction in December and address what the effects might be on the airport's reserves and bond-repayment fund if passenger numbers don't rebound fully.

Wall Street is reevaluating its rating on John Wayne's revenue bonds in light of the slump in travel. The same type of review is happening nationally as financiers evaluate the possible impact on repayment schedules.

Also unknown is how the airport could be affected by making baggage and passenger screeners federal employees.

The bill imposes a passenger fee of $2.50 for each leg of a one-way flight, not to exceed $5, to help pay for the system. It will be the first passenger ticket fee to be charged by John Wayne--one of only a few in the country that doesn't tack on a so-called passenger facility charge.

The county has yet to determine how much money it received in October from airlines for landing fees and from shops and restaurants in the terminal. Shopkeepers in particular have warned officials that their sales plummeted after the attacks.

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