Money and Lies

Photo by Jack GouldFor years, John Wayne Airport (JWA) billed itself as "crowd-free." Ads for the airport in the Los Angeles Timesand The Orange County Register boasted that fact. Come fly with us, the ads seemed to say, because no one else is.

The ads were—and are—true. Walk into the main terminal at almost any hour of the day, and you'll find a lot of vacant seats, empty luggage carousels and bored staff. Film studios rent out the joint whenever they want to shoot airport scenes without the bother of unplanned cameos.

Since it's hard for the county to promote its big, proposed El Toro International Airport with a ghost town of an airport sitting just seven miles away, officials probably figured they should try a new marketing tack. Not only are the words "crowd-free" gone from current JWA ads, but in the Spring 2001 issue of JWA Today, the latest edition of the airport's online newsletter, airport officials are now spinning 2000 as the airport's "busiest year ever."

This is mostly true: 7,772,801 passengers used JWA last year, which technically makes it "the highest annual figure in our history." Alas, this "banner year" appears more like a blip in JWA's overall lackluster service history. In 1996, JWA's passenger-service number rose to 7.3 million, prompting the Orange County Business Journal to report gleefully that "probably no later than 1998, the airport should reach its court-mandated cap of 8.4 million passengers per year." Demand did rise by 400,000 the next year, but then it dropped to 7.4 million, where it remained until last year.

El Toro
Airport Watch

Undaunted, officials are predicting even greater figures for this year, trumpeting an infinitesimal 0.5 percent growth in passenger service in January over the same time last year. Unfortunately for the county, which seems so desperately to want JWA to burst at the seams, passenger-demand figures at the airport dropped for the following three months—a dramatic 8.2 percent in February, 4.9 percent in March, and 6.4 percent in April.

Underlying the numbers is this fact: there simply aren't a lot of Orange County residents who need to fly every year. The county's own Technical Report 17, published in December 1999 and detailing JWA demand, suggests that OC's "passenger deficiency"—the number of passengers who can't be served at JWA—is 5 million, not the 12 million figure offered by LAX expansion opponent and El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon and by the Times editorial page. Without restrictions, JWA could serve 15 million passengers per year, far more than even the county says we need.

These facts aside, county officials insist on acting as if their airport is lousy with tourists, implying that the place has become a kind of Calcutta teeming with weary travelers. That's propaganda. So was this: in an apparently counterintuitive move, the county and the Newport Beach City Council recently announced they want to raise JWA's capacity from 8.4 million to 9.8 million passengers per year. The goal is obvious: terrify Newport Beach residents into believing JWA is growing, and they'll open their wallets to pay for more propaganda, which will produce more terror, more wallet opening and more propaganda, forever, in an endless cycle of money and lies.

—Anthony Pignataro


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