As many as 1.4 million more passengers will be able to use John Wayne Airport each year starting Jan. 1 under an expansion plan approved Tuesday by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
The decision extends a 1985 agreement that capped airport expansion for 20 years, but the plan still includes flight restrictions that are opposed by air carriers.
Supervisors and the city of Newport Beach hope that by permitting a limited increase in traffic at the county's only airport they can forestall lawsuits that could end the county's ability to regulate the airport altogether.
The plan approved Tuesday by the county, and also by the Newport Beach City Council, would increase the number of loud jets using the airport from 73 to 85 departures a day, as well as add four loading gates within the terminal.
The annual limit on passengers would rise to 9.8 million from 8.4 million beginning Jan. 1.
"We're making significant concessions upfront to make everyone understand that we want [them] to accept this," Supervisor Todd Spitzer said of the unanimous vote.
The Air Transport Assn., which represents the nation's largest airlines, has insisted that all regulations at the airport expire at the end of 2005, including noise limits and a curfew for commercial jets.
That position hasn't changed, association spokesman Roger Cohen said Tuesday. Orange County voters' rejection in March of a proposed new airport at the former El Toro Marine base makes the argument greater for ending the limits at John Wayne Airport, he said.
"It underscores that Southern California needs more airport capacity," Cohen said from the association's headquarters in Washington. If airlines accept the county's continued control of the airport, they will gain an immediate increase in flights and passengers, Spitzer said. If they fight it, they will face years of litigation, he said.
The county can restrict operations at John Wayne Airport because its 1985 agreement predates a 1990 change in federal law. The airlines agreed to replace loud jets with newer, quieter jets in exchange for ending the authority of airport operators.
The county and Newport Beach insist that they can extend the 1985 agreement, endorsed by a federal judge, without permission from the airlines or the Federal Aviation Administration. The next step is to draft a new airport "access plan" that will allocate the new flights and gates.