History of John Wayne Airport

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A Brief History of JWA

Each decade that the airport has been in existence has brought with it changes that have adversely impacted Newport Beach neighborhoods. What began as a small, general aviation airport has grown into a thriving commercial airport with more than 130 jets per day departing directly over our community.


The airport began as a private landing strip in the early 1920s and gradually grew into a small airport with a portable, wooden hangar. The County of Orange acquired the airport in 1939 and took control of its operations. 


As the population of Orange County and the Southern California region steadily increased over the years, so did the demand for, and nature of, air transportation. The airport was used as an Army Airbase during World War II and then continued to serve small, private aircraft through the late 1940s / early 1950s. 

In 1952, a commercial air carrier introduced airline service to Orange County. This marked the beginning of a significant period of growth for the airport and adverse impacts for Newport Beach and other nearby communities. 

During the late 1950s and 1960s, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) control tower, a new runway and a new terminal building were built and jet aircraft were added to the commercial fleet. A 1961 airport master plan anticipated the airport would eventually serve 400,000 passengers annually.


In the 1970s, Orange County Airport had noise problems, a nighttime curfew was formalized, and lawsuits over aircraft noise levels were filed against the County. In 1979, the airport was renamed John Wayne Airport (JWA).


The early 1980s brought a new master plan that called for new parking and terminal facilities, increasing daily airline departures from 41 to 55 and requiring airlines to introduce quieter jets. By mid-decade, the airport was serving about three-million passengers annually and the County Board of Supervisors approved a new master plan and Environmental Impact Report, which included a much larger terminal – 12 times the size of the existing – and would eventually allow up to 73 daily departures, and up to 10.24 million annual passengers. The City of Newport Beach was among the parties that sued the County over its airport expansion plans.

In 1985, the City, the County, the Airport Working Group and Stop Polluting Our Newport entered into a landmark settlement agreement that set limit on noise levels, commercial departures, number of annual passengers and airport capital improvements for a 20-year term. By the end of the decade, the airport served more than 4.5 million passengers annually.


The next decade began with Congress passing the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990. The Act generally says that no local jurisdiction can adopt or change laws to further limit or restrict access to an airport. It also required air carriers to change to a quieter type of aircraft by a date certain. The limits at JWA, set the 1985 settlement agreement referenced above, were “grandfathered” under the new act and remained in place.

Early 2000s

In 2003, the four signatories to the 1985 JWA Settlement Agreement approved amendments (the 8th Supplemental Stipulation) that extended the term through 2015 and maintained the environmental / noise protections while allowing an increase in permitted operational and facility capacity at the airport. Construction of the new Terminal C and its parking structure began in 2009. It was completed in 2010.  Also in 2009, the FAA implemented an RNAV departure procedure at JWA for certain flights. RNAV specifies routes and enables aircraft to fly more direct paths, with less deviation, than previous technologies. 


The JWA Settlement Agreement was again amended (the 9th Supplemental Stipulation) and extended by the four original signatories in 2014. The key provisions of the settlement agreement and amendments are available online at ocair.com.

The FAA introduced its Southern California Metroplex Project, part of its Next Generation Air Transportation Program (NextGen), locally in 2015 with the circulation of a draft Environmental Assessment for the Metroplex Project. With it came a series of changes to the JWA departure paths. Each change shifted overhead air traffic and affected Newport Beach neighborhoods located under or near the departure paths. The City sued the FAA in advance of NextGen’s rollout at JWA, arguing that the environmental assessment was inadequate. The litigation was settled in early 2018.

The FAA began to implement NextGen at JWA in 2017 and again, residents were impacted by changes to the departure paths. Departing flights that previously were permitted to “fan out” over a greater portion of Newport Beach followed more concentrated paths. Those living under the new, concentrated departure paths bear a larger portion of the noise impacts.

As of 2022, JWA handles more than 11.3 million annual passengers and approximately 130 commercial flights (this excludes General Aviation flights) per day.

Note: Most of the historical details provided here were found at ocair.com.

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