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Newport Beach vs. Newport Beach at John Wayne Airport

Corporate jets at John Wayne Airport. Photo by author

Looks like the air battle over Newport Beach has flared up again. In a mini-replay of recent history, the Orange County Board of Supervisors is considering expanding business jet operations at John Wayne Airport–prompting the rich folks in Newport to protest that the plan would increase noise and air pollution over their community. While these are largely the same arguments put forward by South County residents 20 years ago when the county proposed building an international airport at the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, what’s very different now is that Newport Beach is helping to feed the very airport demand the city also opposes.

Under the new plan–known as the General Aviation Improvement Project (GAIP), which came up for discussion at the May 7 Supervisors’ meeting–the airport would handle 86 business jets (up from the current 65) while losing 137 spaces for smaller prop planes, according to a May 8 Voice of OC story [1]. Doing this would “maximize the efficiency and safety of facilities and facilitate prioritization of future general aviation improvements,” according to a county staff report on the proposal [2].

A gaggle of Newport Beach residents and officials say the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is a disaster waiting to happen. They say general aviation (GA) jets are about as loud as big commercial airliners, and an increase in their flight operations will further degrade their quality of life.

U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda (D–Newport Beach … and an extremely wealthy [3] former land developer who’s probably ridden on a corporate jet once or twice in his life) is one such opponent. “I am concerned that the current EIR does not adequately take into consideration the noise, greenhouse gas emissions, and health effects of the project,” the congressman says in a May 6 statement. “The EIR is quick to attribute any future noise increase to commercial operators but fails to take into account the existing level of noise that has harmed the community.”

Newport Beach Mayor Diane Brooks Dixon is another opponent. In addition to writing a March 25 letter [4] to Board Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett denouncing the plan, she also attended the May 7 Supervisors’ meeting, along with dozens of her constituents.

“While the GAIP speaks of modernization, the city’s residents instead see the burden of more GA jet operations, diminished air quality, additional noise and flights operating at all hours,” Dixon states in her letter to Bartlett. “Equally important, any actions concerning the GAIP must take into account safety, security and accountability for and to all, not just the select few passengers partaking in GA jet travel.”

Dixon’s dismissing the support for the project to a “select few passengers” is a bit odd, considering that a fair portion of those same passengers come from Newport Beach itself–which is, after all, one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S. In fact, a 2018 Bloomberg story [5] compared the city’s $97,597 per capita income to the “price tag of a new Porsche 911 Carrera.”

For fun, I visited the airport on May 8 and wrote down the tail numbers of 15 random corporate jets I saw parked alongside Campus Boulevard. Then, using the Federal Aviation Administration’s tail number search engine [6], I determined that five of those aircraft–a third of my admittedly unscientific sampling–were in some way tied to Newport Beach.

Billionaire and Newport Coast resident Henry Nicholas’ famous 1993 Gulfstream G-IV was there–the same plane the feds seized [7] back in 2008, saying it was used to transport drugs, only to drop [8] the charges two years later and return the plane. Also present was a 1999 Cessna 560XL registered to Kremer Co., a Santa Ana-based firm started by Newport Beach resident and former Irvine Co. president Peter Kremer.

There was also a 2000 Cessna 560XL belonging to Newport Beach-based Sand Creek Investors, and a 2006 Cessna 560XL (damn, that’s a popular model) owned by Newport Beach-based IBC Hospitality. And I’m also including a 1999 Bombadier CL-600 belonging to Bush Aviation, which though Irvine-based is managed by John Hagestad, who lives in Newport Beach.

Lastly, given the City of Newport Beach’s activism against expansion of business jet operations at John Wayne Airport, city officials might want to rethink their official city webpage titled “BUSINESS CLIMATE [9],” which touts proximity to John Wayne as a positive:

Newport Beach is known for its mild Pacific coastal climate, it’s [sic] large recreational harbor, great beaches, two public piers, award-winning restaurants, first-class hotels, excellent shopping, corporate offices and an exceptional quality of life. Newport Beach is adjacent to Orange County’s John Wayne Airport [10], served by most major carriers, and the University of California at Irvine, for access to technology and well educated employees. The City has a diversified and financially solid local economy. It is a popular destination for business and leisure travelers alike.

The Supervisors, who were scheduled to vote on the project during their May 7 meeting, instead delayed the whole matter for further study. They’ll return to it at their May 21 meeting.