After several years of arguments and discussions, community airport activists and private pilots seem satisfied with new leases to renovate and run the small-plane side of John Wayne Airport – but the beginning of an era for them could be the end of one for a commuter jet company that may no longer be able to operate at JWA.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Sept. 15, agreed to 35-year leases with Clay Lacy Aviation and ACI Jet, about a month after they selected those companies and a third one, Jay’s Aircraft Maintenance, as operators of the airport’s general aviation facilities.
The board’s choice of companies that will offer hangar space, plane fueling and maintenance and other services came after a lengthy and highly debated bidding process. Community groups opposed to airport growth, noise and air pollution, and the Southern California Pilots Association, representing hobby and private plane pilots, had been concerned that smaller aircraft could get pushed out to make space for more lucrative corporate jets and commuter services such as JSX (formerly called JetSuiteX).
But under the terms of the two leases approved Tuesday, it appears JSX will be the one to go. Despite appeals from JSX employees and thousands of the company’s customers, supervisors left in a provision that bans “regularly scheduled commercial users” such as JSX from the general aviation facilities.
Airport spokeswoman Deanne Thompson said in an email that residents had asked that the leases prohibit commuter-type services, and that the three companies chosen after the bidding process had all said on their applications that they didn’t plan to sublease to such businesses.
Airport activists say commuter and charter jets are larger and louder than hobby planes, and that since they operate like commercial airlines they should use the main terminal, where passengers go through federal security screening.
JSX CEO Alex Wilcox, in a Monday phone interview, said the new lease language is “an existential threat to us” and that following the same procedures as commercial airlines won’t work with the company’s business model.
JSX strives to provide quick and convenient service that gets people to places that, in some cases, get little service from major carriers, he said. Destinations on the company’s website include Concord, Oakland and Reno-Tahoe.
“My website says show up 20 minutes before your flight, get on and go without breaking a sweat,” Wilcox said, while JWA’s website suggests travelers show up two hours before departure.
Wilcox argues his jets are quieter than other large aircraft, and that the company has weapons detection systems in its waiting rooms and swabs passengers’ hands and luggage for traces of explosives.
JSX told customers that absent a change in the county’s lease terms, the company would have to discontinue service at John Wayne at the end of this year.
While community stakeholders appear largely satisfied with the board’s decision, Newport Beach officials and residents were still hoping for more concrete promises. JWA operates under a unique legal settlement that caps the annual number of passengers and sets a curfew for commercial flights, but it doesn’t apply to general aviation.
Newport resident Sue Dvorak told supervisors that Clay Lacy and ACI had both voluntarily agreed to keep their operations within the hours of the commercial passenger terminal, but residents wanted it included in the leases.
“There is a great fear that loud private jets will be flying over our homes 24/7,” she said.
Atlantic Aviation, which currently operates at JWA and bid for a new lease but was not selected, sent an attorney to inform supervisors they must postpone their vote to address its protest of the bid process filed Monday. But County Counsel Leon Page told the board nothing legally prevented them from moving forward.
The third and final lease, with Jay’s Aircraft Maintenance, is still under negotiation.