Alan Murphy (right), who is retiring as director of John Wayne Airport, with his fiancée Annie. Credit: Alan Murphy

I called John Wayne Airport Director Alan Murphy this week because at 57, he’s retiring on February 5th.

This next week the Board of Supervisors are expected to appoint an interim replacement for him, he tells me.

Having worked in county government for 32 years, Murphy came to the airport in 1986. He’s been the head honcho there since 2000.

I first met him when Supervisor Tom Wilson appointed me to the Santa Ana Heights Redevelopment Agency Project Advisory Committee in 2001.

The majority of funding for the RDA came from JWA, and Santa Ana Heights is impacted greatly by airport noise and air pollution issues.

Needless to say we had differing opinions at times, but he was always the consummate professional in all our dealings.

He never shied away from controversy, and always made himself available to the community – no matter how tough the questions were coming his way.

Over the years I watched him calmly speak to groups working to curb growth at JWA who were ready to string him up before he entered the room.

He’s had a tough job trying to navigate the county’s increasing airport demands- and the surrounding community’s concern about growth.

“I have tried to find a balance between the two. I’m sure people on both sides think we should have done more, “he says.

As he closes his JWA chapter and moves on to retirement, Murphy reflected on his tenure as airport director.

He says the airport has evolved since he first started and of course everything changed after 9-11.

“9-11 was a milestone. It’s when our business changed, “he said.

Murphy says with the advent of the terrorist attack, the balancing act of maintaining public safety and keeping flying fun was challenging.

With new TSA baggage screening requirements in place, “we were the first larger airport in the country with a 100 percent integrated system” which shortened lines for passengers, he says.

Murphy says there’s a lot that happens behind the scenes that the public never sees in running a major airport. He attributes his success to his “amazing staff”.

I asked as he looks back, what makes him smile?

“Walking through the newly built Terminal C before it was open to the public.
It’s a beautiful building,” he says.

There was some controversy with Terminal C regarding unforeseen fees for restaurants in the building.

Whispers behind the scenes say this hiccup might have cost Murphy the County CEO job as his name was supposedly on a short list.

Murphy told me he appreciates the opportunity he’s had to “build things” at JWA and takes pride in starting international service to Mexico, as well as the immigration and customs area.

But maybe his greatest accomplishment is how he’s managed airport impact issues and Newport Beach residents.

He says he never lost sight of the complexities of operating an airport in an urban community, and is proud of the relationships he’s forged with Newport Beach and the community groups he worked with there.

At the top of his accomplishment list with these folks is the newly amended JWA settlement agreement, which he was instrumental in negotiating last year.

He says, “It went well, better than expected,” and has high praise for everyone involved.

With this agreement now in place, Murphy says he feels good about retiring and leaving the airport to the next generation of leadership, who ever that maybe.

I’ve interviewed Murphy many times writing about JWA issues, but this week our conversation took a more personal tone as he talked about retirement and what lies ahead.

Murphy says after 32 years he’s had what he calls” the best job anyone could have in county government”.

Now he’s ready to work on his tennis game and get married this summer.

Last year he proposed to girlfriend, Annie Smythe, outside the Sydney Opera House in Australia. The couple has been dating for several years.

They met through mutual friends and Smythe is very involved in nonprofit organizations, Murphy tells me.

The two are in the process of planning an intimate beach wedding- just a few family and friends-though they haven’t found it easy to actually find a beach to get married on.

I suggested he call one of his county connections and get himself hooked up.

He laughed.

Murphy and Smythe will continue to reside in Huntington Beach where he’s lived for the last 15 years.

But I can’t imagine he’s the kind of guy who’ll be sitting home clipping coupons in retirement.

Is there a second career in his future?

Murphy says me at this point he just wants to get through the next six months and settle into his new life, but doesn’t discount the idea for the future.

He’s made many contacts during his time at JWA and is well respected. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those contacts start calling with new opportunities sooner than later.

So what advice would he give the new person filling his airport director shoes?

“The airport is really an asset to the community. It’s easy to get involved in day to day activities, I’d advise that person not to lose sight of being out in the community addressing concerns,” he says.

He says someone from the airport “needs to be listening”.

Orange County Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer agrees.

“Alan achieved so much that has allowed us to have John Wayne Airport be a good neighbor with the communities,” he told me.

Spitzer feels Murphy “has been an excellent airport director because he’s built credibility with the local communities the airport surrounds. His successor will have to have that same credibility so that the communities who are affected by noise and growth know they will be protected.”

I hope that’s the case, because Murphy will be a tough act to follow.

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