Simon Says

The countys airport czar spins himself dizzy

Photo by Myles RobinsonGary Simon is trying to argue that federal aviation officials recently cleared El Toro International Airport for takeoff. That's his job: as the county's El Toro airport boss, Simon has the unpleasant task of alchemizing bad news into good.

Indeed, one of Simon's first assignments as airport czar was to bring in a new public-relations firm to spin the wildly unpopular airport plan the county's way. In midsummer, he unveiled the county's "Just the Facts" public-information campaign, the centerpiece of which was a small, white refrigerator magnet proudly heralding the greatness of El Toro with the words "Just the Facts." Public hearings designed to spread the Gospel According to Simon have been poorly attended in North County, where airport support is supposed to be strongest; they have been public-relations disasters in South County.

But with the Oct. 9 release of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Airspace Determination report on El Toro, Simon is attempting a bold two-for-one spin: not only is the county's proposed airport safe, but airport opponents are nuts as well.

Simon summed up the report in a full-page ad in the Oct. 15 Orange County Business Journal: "Federal Aviation Administration confirms EL TORO IS SAFE." So that no one missed the point, the last four words were printed in bold type that took up half the page. The ad also included a pro-El Toro quotation from Florida Congressman John Mica, a man so obviously familiar with Orange County and its needs that he mailed his comments to Santa Anita, California.

In fact, the FAA report is a model of bureaucratic equivocation, and its final declaration—that the county's plan for an international airport at the former Marine base "can meet the minimum FAA airport design standards"—is hardly reassuring.

"The airport plan is not as safe as it could be or should be," said Don Segner, a Laguna Beach resident and FAA associate administrator from 1981 to 1986. "The plan will meet the minimum safety issues, but it will also create maximum inefficiency for air-traffic controllers. What we need are the highest standards of safety."

In his report on the federal study, Simon ignored such bad news. Instead, he tried to turn the report into proof that his enemies are liars. It "literally repudiates and rejects each and every claim" that South County cities allied against the airport have "been making to the public on this issue for many years," Simon wrote in an Oct. 15 memo to the county Board of Supervisors. Simon then dismissed the entire safety debate as "a manufactured public-relations assault notable principally for its deliberate hysteria and unsupported by anything other than a desire to distort any available facts (or a willingness to make them up, if necessary) in order to defeat County approval" of the airport.

But it's Simon who is hysterical. In fact, the FAA's Airspace Determination report reads like a catalog of what's wrong with El Toro. The FAA notes that the hills surrounding El Toro are a problem, as are the field's existing runways—which run uphill and are badly aligned. Most significantly, the agency noted the presence of other nearby airports and their long arrival- and departure-traffic streams. The county's El Toro plan "is not the most efficient use of navigable airspace as may be possible," concluded the FAA.

That inefficient use would translate into nightmarish delays at all regional airports. At its worst, the FAA said, there would be dozens of delays at John Wayne Airport to accommodate a single El Toro departure. And there's more: the FAA reached this grim conclusion while figuring traffic at El Toro would reach just 4 million passengers per year—one-seventh of what the county plans to run through El Toro.

El Toro is safe? Barely. Efficient? Not even close. In a critical conclusion, the FAA said the county will have to revise its airport plan. Simon rejected that conclusion outright, telling his bosses on the Board of Supervisors that this is just a "typical airspace-management issue commonly faced whenever new runway capacity is added."

But Segner rejected the notion that there was anything typical about El Toro's impact on the region's aviation. "Ultimately, if they open El Toro, they're going to have to close John Wayne. Do we really need to do this? The airlines seem to be happy with John Wayne right now. Why don't we just continue with it as it is?"

 
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