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Flight to Vancouver Planned From OC

Aviation: Alaska Airlines will launch the first international nonstop air travel from John Wayne Airport in April.


Come April, Orange County will have an international airport--barely--when Alaska Airlines debuts a flight from John Wayne Airport to Vancouver, British Columbia.

The new nonstop route was announced Wednesday by Seattle-based Alaska, which began service from Orange County in 1987. The new flight begins April 28.

"This service opens new opportunities in both directions for both business and leisure travel," said Gregg Saretsky, Alaska Airlines' senior vice president of marketing and planning.

The announcement took airport employees by surprise. The facility has never had a customs office or other accommodations for international flights, including a secure area for unloading passengers who must be processed into the United States. There are no plans to add customs areas because of space constraints, airport officials said.

But such facilities aren't necessary for the Alaska Airlines flight because of an agreement between Canada and U.S. officials allowing passengers to clear customs in Vancouver, which is 140 miles north of Seattle, Alaska spokesman Jack Walsh said. No such agreement exists between, for example, the U.S. and Mexico, he said.

As long as a regularly scheduled flight crosses an international border, the airport can call itself international, said Mike Fergus, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Renton, Wash.

"It's kind of exciting for us," airport spokeswoman Ann McCarly said. No decisions have been made about whether to change the airport's signs to include "international." The airport's FAA designation will remain SNA, for the city of Santa Ana, which is the airport's mailing address.

But don't expect to book a flight to London any time soon. Other physical constraints at the airport include its single 5,700-foot runway, which is too short for most aircraft headed to foreign destinations.

The decision by Alaska Airlines to add the flight comes even though air travel has dropped at U.S. airports since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The airline wanted to open a market for Orange County that hadn't been served, Walsh said.

"The timing was right," he said.

Canadian travelers are attracted to Orange County by Disneyland and other tourist attractions, and Alaska Airlines is one of the largest sellers of vacation packages to Disneyland, Walsh said. For Southland residents, Vancouver is an appealing destination, as well as a gateway for Alaskan cruises through its famed Inside Passage.

Opponents of Orange County's plans to build an international airport at the former El Toro Marine base hailed the Vancouver flight as evidence that John Wayne Airport, between Newport Beach and Irvine, can accommodate the needs of local airline travelers. Opponents of the airport want a park built at El Toro instead.

"Newport Beach has wanted an international airport for years; now they have it," said Meg Waters, spokeswoman for the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a coalition of South County cities fighting an airport at El Toro. "We'll throw them a party at the park."

Don't print the invitations just yet, countered David Ellis of the pro-El Toro Airport Working Group of Orange County. "An international airport with one flight?" he said. "Tell that to the people waiting in line for three hours for international flights at LAX."

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