Reaching Beyond Airport Boundaries- The need for effective collaboration at KSNA to preserve a healthy airport

On Tuesday January 24th, 2017 the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to terminate a nationally recognized Fixed Base Operator (FBO), Signature Flight Support, from operating at the John Wayne Airport (JWA). Signature, the largest FBO chain in the world, with a successful 25 year history at John Wayne International Airport, and who’s employees and clients are now at risk, is being forced out of its leasehold to be replaced by a company that the Orange County Board of Supervisors selected, which did not meet the County’s basic requirements and was ranked fifth out of six bidders. This has sent shock waves across the airport, its tenants and the general aviation industry.

Surprisingly, the County Board of Supervisors appeared to have ignored a unanimous decision of its citizen Airport Commission that ranked Signature first place, leaving many to question the process. It appears the County’s decision is being bolstered by a fallacious argument about fuel pricing, when clearly a free market opportunity at the FBOs at John Wayne Airport exists. Such a position deflects the real issue, given that this important decision was made in conflict with all recommendations, was not consistent with industry standards, and lacked the objectivity and transparency required by the County’s own rules, FAA policy on nondiscrimination and best practices, it is questionable at best. 

As seen at almost every public airport in the country, municipal policies and processes adhere to FAA policy, since it is intended to minimize the potential for violations of federal obligations. The outcome of the Orange County board of Supervisors decision is unprecedented. 

Since the County of Orange is underway with a General Aviation Master Plan, and that effort is intended to lead the County in an airport redevelopment program for general aviation, it would seem reasonable that the Supervisor’s consider the staging and timing of their actions. As decided, absent all of the community’s stakeholder input and interest (on and off the airport), to best decide the future of their airport, the opportunity to best address future land and development requirements, and the safety and vitality of the airport’s operations for the public, is now in question.

It does not seem reasonable, or wise, especially given the Airport Commission’s unanimous recommendation, to place the approval of a short term 22 month FBO lease, replacing the highest-ranking operator, in advance of determining the greater needs of the planning for the airport in the future. Would it not have been wise, as was recommended by the County’s own citizen advisory group and staff, to extend the term of the existing operators until such a plan and phasing was complete, at which time a complete Request for Proposal process could have permitted the industry competitors and all the citizen community stakeholders transparency? 

At the nation’s 5,300 public use airports, there is an increasing number of airport sponsors and businesses who realize the benefits of addressing complex economic challenges and opportunities in a collaborative and reasonable manner. Close collaboration and communication among the airport and its key stakeholders are catalysts for balanced economic growth. Collaboration in complex and dynamic environments such as airports can be challenging among groups whose goals may often seem to conflict. A key to building effective stakeholder relationships is to identify common goals that rise above individual agendas or political influence. Sadly, this is not the culture or environment that exists today in the County of Orange and at the John Wayne Airport. 

When airport sponsors, tenants, public officials, and local business and community leaders work jointly to achieve a common goal, a strong public-private “business support team” is formed. Its ultimate mission is to achieve a healthy, diverse and robust airport that supports economic development and job creation for the entire region. The success of the national transportation system, and the viability and health of airports, requires the knowledge and support of consistent policy making and the adherence to federal and local policy. 

Curt Castagna is president and CEO of Aeroplex/Aerolease Group, an airport/aviation development, management and consulting company with premier facilities in southern California, and is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA