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Few are gung-ho about John Wayne Airport

If Orange County's story is the tale of how a breakaway chunk of Los Angeles County has flowered into a self-sufficient metropolitan area, one chapter that's still unfinished is the airport.

John Wayne Airport here ranks among the top country's top 10 in takeoffs and landings. But don't be too impressed. That's mostly light aircraft. Commercial flights at John Wayne are limited to an average of 41 a day, which means passenger traffic of 2.5 million a year, mostly short-haul flights.

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Since Orange County generates 10 million air passengers annually (counting one individual making a round trip as two passengers), this means some 7.5 million air passengers must fly out of other airports - principally Los Angeles International, popularly known as LAX.

They don't like to have to travel to LAX. And Angelenos are not exactly thrilled about having them. Extra demand on LAX means extra flights must be scheduled, and that means more noise and more congestion on the freeways.

On the other hand, Orange Countians aren't eager to have all that noise in their backyard, either. Or their frontyard: the area around John Wayne has turned out to be prime location for all kinds of office space.

It is convenient - just about all some executives have to do to catch a plane is walk across the street. But it also means no place to grow and a local population incensed about jet noise.

''I don't want John Wayne, by default, to be Orange County's only airport,'' says Newport Beach Mayor Jackie Heather. ''The county (government) has to bite the bullet and put together a strategy to make up the shortfall.''

One plan was to introduce quieter jets - DC-9 Super 80s - which would allow more flights without increasing the total noise load. This is what Robert W. Clifford, president of John Wayne-based Air California, would like - an increase to 55 flights daily.

But Mayor Heather and others say the new planes have proved only marginally quieter - though they accommodate more passengers and hence help ease the air traffic jam somewhat, even with only 41 flights daily. (There was even a proposal to allocate flights by auction, but that was stopped by a court challenge. Mr. Clifford calls it ''an improper way to distribute flights.'')

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Some of the other ''strategies'' would sound like bad jokes anywhere else. One scheme is an offshore airport, to be built on an artifical island in the ocean. This has drawn political flak from Los Angeles, and it strikes even people in Orange County as a bit far out. Leveling the hills of the Santiago Canyon would be a Herculean engineering task, but at least the property all belongs to one owner - the Irvine Company - and there wouldn't be lots of expensive houses to move.

As might be expected, the issue is not going unstudied by official bodies. The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), consisting of elected officials from six counties, including Orange and Los Angeles, recently rejected a proposal for building an offshore airport in favor of trying to get two military bases - the Marine Air Stations at El Toro and at Camp Pendleton - adapted to civilian need. Converting Camp Pendleton to commercial use would lead to the closing of John Wayne, the SCAG reasons.

These proposals have been kept grounded by military reluctance to relinquish the sites - a reluctance that gets a more sympathetic hearing in the case of Camp Pendleton than of El Toro.

The military is never keen on plans to give up facilities, says Larry Goldman , SCAG aviation program manager. ''I have never seen the military say, on something like this, 'Yeah, that sounds like a good idea' ,'' he states.

The Blue Ribbon Airport Committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors has recommended the Santiago Canyon site - which SCAG and the Federal Aviation Administration find unacceptable because of airspace conflicts with nearby airports.

Other proposals have included expansion of the airport in Ontario, in Riverside County, and high-speed rail to convey Orange Countians to the proposed new airport in northeastern Los Angeles County.

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