If You Build It, 24 Million Will Come

A friend once told me the only limit to how big a goldfish can grow is the size of its bowl. As long as you keep feeding it, it'll keep growing.

Airports are like that, too. They start small, but as the years go by, they expand to include bigger terminals, more arrival and departure gates, and, most ominously, more runways.

The only way to guarantee an airport won't grow is to kill it on the drawing board. The residents and cities opposed to the county's plans to build a massive international airport at El Toro understand this. Ask Paul Eckles, who heads ETRPA, the organization of South County cities allied against the airport. "LAX virtually destroyed Inglewood and Lennox," said Eckles, who worked for 20 years as Inglewood's city manager. "Neighborhoods that were okay until the jets started flying in 1959 went into the toilet after that. The city poured huge resources into the area—extra police, assessment districts, improved lighting. Nothing has really solved the problem. Neighborhoods under those flight paths simply can't sustain an American lifestyle."

Airport boosters and county officials trying to build El Toro also understand these facts. That's why they've spent the past four years tossing out a variety of "realistic" and "fair" plans to fly commercial airliners in and out of El Toro. They know that from small airports, mighty international airports grow.

A few of their plans are highly detailed, extremely expensive county proposals, but many are just whimsical ideas entirely lacking in any kind of background study or credibility. All of them are vastly bigger than John Wayne Airport, which handles - a mere 7 million - passengers—or 89,000 commercial flights—per year.

In 1996, the county Board of Supervisors adopted the original Community Reuse Plan. This called for a truly massive international airport serving 38 million annual passengers (MAP), which translated into an incredible 447,000 arrivals and departures per year.

Two years later, the supervisors approved the so-called Plan C, which called for a much smaller El Toro International —24 MAP with 186,100 flights per year—linked to a slightly expanded John Wayne Airport by a Disneyland-like people-mover. The supes eventually balked at this idea when they found out the link between the two airports would cost $300 million.

The supervisors had always boasted—and continue to boast—about the professionalism and thoroughness of their airport planning. The death of Plan C and the rise of a new proposal, Plan B, revealed the utter hollowness of that claim.

Within days of the demise of Plan C, the supervisors moved on to Plan B, now known as the "Airport and Open Space Plan," calling for a much larger 28.8 MAP El Toro airport serving 300,600 operations per year. Within a matter of months and with no apparent planning outside a marketing study of South County voting habits, the county supes announced a radical innovation on Plan B: hundreds of acres of land dedicated to commercial and technical uses were now going to be strawberry patches, parks and soccer fields. This international airport would be friendly.

Not friendly enough to appease South County voters, however, and in October 1999, 4th District Supervisor Cynthia Coad jumped into the game. She proposed to "limit" El Toro to just 18.8 MAP, or roughly 224,000 flights per year.

Now megadeveloper George Argyros—who's spent $3 million of his own money on ballot campaigns promoting El Toro International Airport—advocates dropping El Toro to between 14 and 18 MAP. Argyros has said nothing about how many operations such an airport would accommodate, but it's likely to range up to 214,000 flights per year.

As with other airport proposals, there are numbers missing or conjured from thin air. Neither Coad nor Argyros included any discussion in their "proposals" of how much cargo El Toro would accommodate. The current county plan calls for 2 million tons of cargo to move through El Toro every year. That translates into 26,600 flights per year, with the aircraft usually flying at night or in the early morning, when the vast majority of air cargo moves in this country.

There's no mention of cargo because they haven't thought about it. They just toss out diminishing MAP numbers—which are far less tangible than yearly operations figures—in the hopes of convincing the voters that El Toro can be small and manageable. The plans are not plans in any sense of the word, just propaganda aimed at drugging South County voters with the intoxicating notion of an airport that is the industrial equivalent of a blacksmith shop under a spreading chestnut tree. The goal is to build an airport—any airport—at El Toro. Expansion will occur later; it always does.


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