The Demand Game

After spending a morning in the cargo companies' parking lots along the John Wayne Airport (JWA) runway, it's difficult to understand why the county is pushing so hard for a much larger international airport at El Toro. Sure, the airliners sit nose-to-tail at 7 a.m. at the end of the runway awaiting final clearance. But by 7:15, the planes are mostly gone, leaving the field to its daily dreariness of one commercial arrival or departure every hour or so.

County officials call this phenomenon "rising demand." They trumpet it everywhere—local meetings, glossy mailers, supervisor hearings, TV ads. It is the most fundamental argument they have for proposing to send 825 airliners into and out of El Toro every day.

Too bad no one in the county can back it up. According to the latest figures produced by the county's John Wayne Airport office, JWA passenger demand decreased 5.4 percent from last year's demand during the same month. That decrease is typical—just two months out of the past 20 showed any increase in passenger usage over the same period the previous year. The other 18 months showed declines of between 0.3 percent and 6.7 percent. Or, to put it another way, 669,749 people flew in and out of JWA in April 1997. During April of this year, just 605,872 people used the airport—64,000, for whatever reason, went elsewhere.

In 1990, then-assistant airport director Jan Mittermeier (now county executive officer) told the Los Angeles Times that "we expect the number of passengers to increase rapidly to the new cap" of 8.4 million annual passengers. That was eight years ago—JWA air passenger travel is still a full million passengers below federally imposed limits.

This is "rising demand"? You want demand—families in Orange County are taking their children to illegal backroom pharmacies because there are so few convenient community health clinics (19, or roughly one for every 100,000 people). Or consider the 57 freeway—or any OC freeway —between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Or the Newport Beach peninsula from May 31 to Sept. 1. Now that's demand.

An odd piece of evidence that the county is playing a game with "demand" came from a three-judge panel in San Diego last week. That panel threw out a 1997 Superior Court ruling finding the county's first El Toro Draft Environmental Impact Report had "minimized" the damage the proposed airport would cause. In an ironic twist, the judges affirmed just one part of the earlier ruling: the judge's conclusion that county officials overestimated demand for El Toro.

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