As readers of this column understand too well, the county of Orange has spent $40 million over the past four years working on an El Toro International Airport that is flawed in virtually every respect. For three years, I've reported the comments of numerous current and former airline pilots, a former airport designer, a former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) associate administrator and a former federal Department of Transportation inspector general—all of whom came to the same conclusion: the county's work has been a waste. The surrounding hills, prevailing winds, runway grades, runway layout and already-saturated airspace all make El Toro simply too dangerous to fly.
Now add the FAA—which must approve the El Toro master plan before any plane lands—to that list.
On Aug. 6, the Los Angeles Times (with TheOrange County Register following the next day) disclosed the existence of a new FAA report that concludes the county's El Toro plan won't work.
Completed in May, the report says departures to the north—30 percent of all proposed takeoffs—"require the use of airspace that is not available." As for the rest of the departures, those heading east: "Heavily loaded aircraft, especially on hot days, may not be able to climb at a rate sufficient for . . . departures."
For the county, there are only two solutions: use runways at El Toro that send aircraft directly at the heart of the Irvine Co. or lay down new—and costly—runways that launch planes over the heart of central and north Orange County.
As county officials scramble over the next few months in the face of increasing FAA pressure to abandon all the work they've done so far, keep in mind the following county assurances during the past two years:
• "Takeoffs from El Toro to the north and east are feasible and can be conducted in accordance with FAA safety requirements. . . ." (May 5, 1998, county press release)
• "[T]he county's planning meets all FAA safety requirements and protects the quality of life of residents near the airport." (July 3, 1998, county press release)
• "We've already taken [wind and foothills] into account. We will continue working with the airlines to address their concerns." (Former county spokeswoman Ellen Cox Call in a July 1, 1999, Orange CountyRegister story)
• "We are using some of the best consultants in the world. They are using FAA guidelines as their starting point." (Call in a Nov. 17, 1999, Register story)
Four years wasted. Forty million dollars thrown away. And for what? An airport proposal that satisfied billionaire megadeveloper George Argyros but no one else?