Orange County Supervisors Decide Today on Private Jet Plan for John Wayne Airport

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A commercial flight arriving to John Wayne Airport on March 19, 2020.

Orange County supervisors today will decide on a set of aviation companies to service small planes and private jets flying in and out of John Wayne Airport, as nearby residents and watchdogs under their flight paths voice concern over whether they’re caught in the midst of a new airport expansion. 

On the table is a host of companies seeking contracts to lease airport land for decades and become “fixed base operators” at John Wayne — meaning they’ll service small propeller planes, helicopters, and private jets that aren’t part of commuter airlines — with the possible construction of new aircraft hangars included in or hinted at in some companies’ proposals.

Many of the companies and/or executives and lobbyists involved in bidding for these contracts in recent years have been active contributors to past county supervisors’ campaigns.  

Airport expansion foes fear that what started as a home to smaller propeller planes has over the years turned into a more ambitious enterprise with increased international clientele — in turn raising additional concerns over more noise and air pollution for nearby communities.

Stoking those concerns are the possibilities accompanying the companies seeking the leases, such as the construction of new, large hangars — or “general aviation facilities” — to service larger aircraft, as well as a feared increase in private jets coming in and out of the airport, but not based there.

Additionally, the terms and conditions of the agreements the county would be entering into with whichever companies they select haven’t even been fleshed out yet. The companies would return to the supervisors at a later date for approval of the finalized lease agreements.

Residents, watchdogs, and city officials neighboring the airport also expect supervisors — namely, Michelle Steel — to follow through on a promise to maintain the existing mix of small and large aircraft housed at the airport, after initial plans to push small planes out in favor of larger private jets were met by heavy public backlash last year.

Under those conditions, the companies would limit “medium and large general aviation aircraft” to 25.6 acres of the airport land, and keep 34.6 acres for small aircraft. 

County airport commissioners have sent recommendations to the board that companies ACI Jet, Clay Lacy Aviation, and Jay’s Aircraft Maintenance receive the contracts for full and limited aviation services.

Newport Beach officials stopped short of explicitly endorsing aviation companies in their recommendations, though agreed that proposals by ACI Jet and Clay Lacy Aviation best addressed the public’s noise pollution concerns and wishes for the same mix of small and large aircraft, among other issues.

Baked into both panels’ recommendations are requests that supervisors don’t go back on those jet space commitments.

Though airport watchdogs have pointed out — and Newport officials have admitted — that much of the recommendations are based on a set of documents, including pieces of those companies’ lease proposals, that the county decided to release, and that there is still much unknown about what kind of deal these aviation companies could be entering into with the county. 

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

John Wayne Airport located in Santa Ana.

In a statement emailed out to residents on Monday, Newport Beach officials urged county officials implement requirements like limited hours of operations for the companies that win the contracts.

“Our work is not finished and we are now focused on how the selected FBOs will manage their facilities. The City is urging the County to limit the FBOs’ amenities and their hours of operation to help prevent an increase in GA jet traffic and the corresponding noise and pollution impacts,” reads the city’s statement.

The statement later adds: “We want these items in the final, negotiated leases along with a clause requiring any future, proposed lease changes pertaining to these provisions to go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.”

Nearly every aspect of the process has been met with scrutiny — most recently, an Aug. 5 county airport commission meeting, where a total breakdown in phone conferencing shut out members of the public calling in remotely out of novel coronavirus concerns. Meanwhile, county airport commissioners continued on with the meeting, which ended with them approving the staff recommendations.

Airport and county officials later apologized for the technical difficulties. 

Sue Dvorak, a member of Newport Beach’s own aviation committee, has for the past two weeks pointed out in public meetings that the county in April sent back the aviation companies’ bids for modification.

When county supervisors last year approved the conditions for companies’ airport lease bids, Supervisor Michelle Steel amended the county’s original, controversial plans to scrap smaller aircraft spaces to make way for larger private jets, and instead approved conditions that any bidding companies would keep “the same mix” of small and large aircraft operators.

Dvorak and other watchdogs now fear that the county’s act of sending back those bidding companies’ proposals this year for modification and resubmission might put those new jet space conditions in jeopardy.

Airport spokesperson Deanne Thompson, responding to previous Voice of OC questions, said while the companies’ proposals were modified, the conditions that include Steel’s amendment to the jet space acreage “remained unchanged.” 

Whatever happens at the airport will most directly affect neighborhoods in the First, Second and Third Supervisorial Districts – overseen by supervisors Andrew Do, Michelle Steel, and Don Wagner.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.