Runaway Runways

El Toro Airport Watch No. 141

El Toro Airport planning is such a damned mess that you might reasonably expect jumpers to appear at the upper windows of the County Hall of Administration. Instead, what you hear falling with a feculent thud are the myriad proposals for a new and improved El Toro runway plan, one in which said runways don't shoot passenger-filled aircraft into one another or directly into the hills around Orange County.

The frenzied plan making is the product of the county's latest spin on its humiliating loss in the March 7 election. On that day, county voters overwhelmingly approved Measure F, which pretty much killed the project.

The county's most sanguine officials now say the real reason for El Toro's public-relations failure is its runways. The result: a flurry of new runway configurations, each designed to allay public concerns about building the fifth-largest airport in the country just down the street from your house.

This isn't rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Titanic once actually floated. And had real deck chairs. This instead is the county pretending that it has the authority to impose on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) runway configurations that only the FAA can approve.

In the early days—every day until March 7, that is—the county insisted that not turning the abandoned Marine Corps Air Station into an international airport would be a profligate waste of resources. It was, after all, already an airport. Never mind the fact that it had been a military airport: airports are airports, they argued, and this one—with its 10,000-foot-long runways—would be "turnkey": open the gates, let the planes fly in, and we would be suddenly connected to the globe.

And it would be free, of course, wouldn't cost the taxpayers a goddamn thing. Because it was already an airport. With runways.

But for the past three years, as devoted readers of this column know too well, local pilots, aviation experts and the nation's two largest commercial pilots' unions have all said basically the same thing: that runway layout sucks.

Now county officials say all they need to do to make the airport a more agreeable neighbor is to "re-orient" the runways. Translation: rip up the tarmac that was supposed to be turnkey and replace it with denser stuff pointed in different—safer—directions.

The cost of re-orientation: perhaps as much as $3 billion to $5 billion. So much for "free."

Now just about everyone with a T-square and a sharp pencil has decided to get into the El Toro design contest. Theoretically, there are 360 possible configurations for El Toro's runways. Here are three.

There's the "Pilot's Plan," a simple idea advanced by retired commercial pilot and current Villa Park Mayor Bob McGowan. This would demolish the county's current east-west runway and have all aircraft land toward the south on El Toro's remaining Runway 34. This looks great on paper, but it would require arriving aircraft to descend over a series of hills and ridges—something even county aviation studies consider too risky.

Another proposal is the "Wildlands Ranch Plan," drawn up by two pro-airport gadflies in the Newport Beach area, which would replace the current El Toro runways with a V-shaped design. This plan suffers from the requirement that all aircraft arrive and descend over a huge swath of not-yet-developed land owned by political potentate Donald Bren of the Irvine Co. Can you say "doomed to a miserable, lonely death"?

About the best possible configuration for El Toro is the one pushed by the Air Line Pilot's Association, the Allied Pilots Association and former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo. This would create one or two long runways parallel to the 5 freeway. Although this is the best runway orientation from a pilot's perspective—it negates the effect of winds and the presence of hills that plague other proposals—it suffers from serious political problems: incoming aircraft would descend over Mission Viejo and Lake Forest and take off over Tustin, Orange and Santa Ana.

The lesson in all this is so simple you'd think even Supervisor Jim Silva would have recognized it long ago: there is no way to build an airport at El Toro that doesn't drown a bunch of cities in jet fumes and noise. There is no way to build an airport at El Toro that doesn't require billions of dollars in construction. And there's no way to build an airport at El Toro that would justify the effort and resources already wasted.

 
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