Off Again

For the past three years, county officials have insisted that at least two-thirds of all planes departing the proposed El Toro International Airport will take off to the east on Runway 7. For just as long, two major commercial-pilots unions have insisted that the plan—forcing fully loaded airliners to take off uphill with tail winds into rising terrain—is madness.

Through it all, county officials have kept their hands over their ears as they endlessly repeat their position that Runway 7 is safe, even as more and more aviation experts speak out against the county's plan. Runway 7's deficiencies have become so obvious that an expert the county once thought agreed with them has joined the opposition camp.

"The combination of rising terrain and predominant tail wind will restrict the use of this runway both in terms of certain periods of time when the tail winds exceed allowable levels and for aircraft that are on the heavy side due to the rising terrain," wrote American Airlines executive vice president Robert W. Baker in a June 14 letter to anti-airport Web site editor Len Kranser. "Runway 7 with a tail wind component and rising terrain will never be considered desirable or preferable from an airline or pilot's point of view."

Baker is merely reiterating what is well-known to any impartial observer. United States Geological Survey data for El Toro indicates that 6-knot winds blow in from the west nine months out of the year. The negative effect of those winds is made perfectly clear in the county's Jeppeson Analyses, which was released in May 1998. That report (see El Toro Airport Watch No. 71, July 24, 1998) detailed how aircraft departing on Runway 7 would face serious weight penalties of around 10 tons that don't exist on any of El Toro's other runways. Weight penalties mean that planes have to fly lighter—fewer passengers, less cargo or both. For that reason, every pilot who selects Runway 7 instead of another runway loses money. For that reason, Baker concluded, "you can fully expect most pilots to reject the offer of Runway 7."

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On July 6, Los Angeles Times reporter Jean O. Pasco wrote that "county officials reacted with a collective shrug" to the Baker letter. So typical. But what Pasco didn't point out is that county officials used to sing Baker's praises.

During the Jan. 13, 1998, county Board of Supervisors meeting, El Toro program manager Courtney Wiercioch held up a letter written by Baker that seemed to endorse the county's runway selections. Baker's letter, she said, was proof that airlines were in complete agreement with the county's plans. In fact, as Baker later pointed out, Wiercioch had taken his statements out of context.

Someday soon, county officials will have to admit Runway 7 is useless. And on that day, maybe we'll react with a collective shrug, too.

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