County Supervisors OK Search for General Aviation Services at JWA

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A general aviation aircraft at John Wayne Airport.
— Photo courtesy JWA / Eusebio Productions ©

The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to move forward with a request for proposals from fixed-based operators at John Wayne Airport, which could ink 30-year leases for its general aviation operations in July 2020.

Board Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett agreed with Airport Director Barry Rondinella that the county should consider leasing its general aviation land for at least three decades to sufficiently incentivize fixed base operators to invest tens of millions of dollars in building new aircraft hangars. She added that the Board is really looking for a ground-up rebuild of existing facilities.

“If you’re going to get a 30 to 35-year lease term, we want the significant investment to get us through that lease term,” Bartlett said.

Second District Supervisor Michelle Steel, who represents Newport Beach on the Board, also recommended a 30 to 35-year lease terms, adding that a fixed base operator who proposes investing $10 million for minor improvements and painting probably won’t get the contract. Steel and Bartlett said an $80 million investment would be more appropriate for the Airport’s future needs.

Full-service fixed base operators provide fuel to general aviation customers, hangars and tie-down facility management, aircraft repair services, transient aircraft parking, charter operations, and aircraft washing. The county is soliciting bids for two fixed base operators and one limited fixed base operator. The latter would be prohibited from selling aircraft fuel or operating charter flights, but could still repair and wash aircraft.

A majority of the supervisors appeared to lean toward county counsel’s unpopular opinion opposing a community-supported plan to preserve the current fleet of propeller-driven planes at John Wayne Airport. The county’s attorneys argue it would violate a federal law that prohibits airports that accept federal grants from discriminating against one type of aircraft over another because of economic concerns.

John Wayne Airport
— Photo courtesy JWA/Matt Fukushima

Mayor Diane Dixon and Councilman Jeff Herdman voiced the city’s endorsement of the Southern California Pilots Association plan to reduce the smallest hangars’ widths from 49 to 40 feet. This would prevent about half of the airport’s corporate jet fleet from taking up space the Association believes should be set aside for small propeller planes.

“We strongly support the Southern California pilots’ request for specific RFP language requiring individual hangars in specific sizes to achieve our shared goal,” Dixon said.

Newport Beach city leaders and community groups have stood with the pilots’ recommendation because they believe any increase in jet fleet housed at the Airport would create more noise and air pollution.

Fred Fourcher, founder and board member of the Southern California Pilots Association, said his organization and the wider community is recommending smaller individual hangars to avoid being crowded out by jet owners who can afford to pay higher rents.

“With individual hangars, you can’t put a big jet in a little hangar and as time goes on, if you build community hangars, you can put any mix of aircraft in there,” Fourcher said. “It gives flexibility and that’s what Barry would like. What the pilots and the community behind us here [want] is to preserve the small planes on the field.”

Supervisor Andrew Do said he would not entertain any proposals from fixed based operators who attempt to low ball the county. County CEO Frank Kim said he believes the likelihood of that is low.

“My feeling is — based on conversations I’ve had with the airport staff and just conversations within the community — to be a leasee at John Wayne Airport with an FBO is a very important, prestigious opportunity in, I would say, the entire United States,” Kim said.

Supervisor Doug Chaffee pointed out that there will be future opportunities for the public to comment on the proposals from fixed base operators.

“I feel like there is a lot of speculation and until we have a concrete proposal before us you don’t really know and I’d like to end the speculation and get something concrete,” Chaffee said.

According to the request for proposals, fixed base operators must submit their bids by Dec. 19. A panel of nationally-renowned experts selected by airport staffers will review the proposals and interview the candidates through February 2020. The Airport Commission is scheduled to hold a meeting to recommend its preferred fixed base operators in March 2020.

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