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TRAVEL: New John Wayne Airport terminal will open without Mexico flights

Warner column: Terminal C at John Wayne will open Nov. 14 without flights that need to use the new Customs and Border Patrol facilities. The airport is asking county officials to approve incentives for airlines to start service to Mexico.
Published: Oct. 19, 2011

When John Wayne Airport holds its press preview and VIP tour of the new Terminal C next month, visitors will inspect the international arrivals area, the first of its kind in Orange County. Here passengers flying in from foreign countries could present their passports to Customs and Border Patrol officers as they enter the United States.
After the tours, the area will close, even as the rest of the airport opens to the public Nov. 14.

A visitor relaxes on a beach in Cabo San Lucas. Flights from Orange County are a possibility because travelers currently have to drive an hour north to LAX for a two hour flight south to Los Cabos.
Cabo? Loreto? Mazatlan? Someplace else? Where would you like to fly from John Wayne Airport? Add your ideas below.

Terminal C will debut without any CBP agents because there are no foreign flights. At least, foreign flights that need to use the facility. WestJet flies to Vancouver and during the spring and summer, to Calgary. But under a special program, passengers pass through the U.S. entry formalities while still in Canada.

Given that the 5,701-foot runway at John Wayne Airport precludes the use of wide-body passenger jets, any future foreign destinations would have to be within reach of smaller Boeing 737s, 757s and various Airbus jets. Looking at the location of the airport, the mix of airlines, the range of the aircraft and the local demographics, it's pretty easy to see the facility was built with one destination in mind: Mexico.

The airport agrees and has carried on talks over the past year with a number of airlines. But so far, no takers. To goose the process along, John Wayne officials are asking the county to approve an incentive program that will give airlines several hundred thousand dollars in airport rent discounts for every new Mexico destination they serve nonstop from John Wayne. The plan goes to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 9.

To me, there are several destinations that make sense out of John Wayne Airport. No. 1 is Cabo San Lucas, a West Coast favorite. Passengers from Orange County currently have to make an hour's drive north to Los Angeles International Airport to fly two hours south to the Los Cabos airport.

Loreto, another West Coast favorite that's not as well known to the rest of the U.S., is another candidate for service. Add in a few classics like Mazatlan and La Paz, plus the hub of Mexico City for connections on to places like Cancun and Oaxaca, and you have a collection of prospective destinations that some airline is going to see as worth a try.

But which airline might try? John Wayne Airport officials won't say which airlines they've talked to. When the airport expansion was proposed a few years ago, Mexicana seemed a good bet. Instead, the airline spiraled into bankruptcy and stopped flying in August 2010.

Southwest, the largest airline at John Wayne Airport, doesn't fly to Mexico. But it has purchased Air Tran, which does. Southwest was given the largest number of spots in the new Terminal C. But Southwest is having corporate indigestion over folding Air Tran into its system, particularly with the opposition of Air Tran pilots to a proposed seniority list.

The other major tenant when Terminal C opens is discount carrier Frontier, which flies to Mexico, but only through its hubs in Denver, Kansas City and Milwaukee.

Alaska Airlines flies from several spots on the West Coast to Mexico. It seems a natural. But then, it also seemed a natural to pick up the flights to Hawaii from Orange County that became available when Aloha Airlines went bankrupt. Alaska gobbled up a number of the old Aloha routes but skipped Orange County. It took Continental, now merging with United, to revive Orange County-Hawaii service.

United/Continental, Delta, US Airways and American also serve Mexico.

The wild card may be the gaggle of new Mexican airlines that have started service in recent years since Mexicana's collapse. Despite Mexico's economic struggles and a U.S. State Department travel warning against visiting a number of cities because of drug cartel violence, Mexico is one of the hot spots for airline expansion and competition. Besides, many of the Mexican airlines are focused on Mexican customers and where they want to fly.

Viva Aerobus flies throughout Mexico and has started service out of Las Vegas.

Volaris is a low-cost airline that has long drawn U.S. budget travelers by offering a cross-border bus service to its hub in Tijuana, where tickets and taxes are lower. Volaris has expanded its plans, primarily through a cooperative agreement with Southwest that connects the two airlines flights. Volaris now flies into Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Oakland, Fresno, Las Vegas and Chicago.

And don't forget Aeromexico, the "other" established airline that outlived Mexicana – with flights to several U.S. cities, coast-to-coast. It just added service between Guadalajara and Las Vegas.

Right now, all I have is reasoned speculation about what will happen here. But a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility wasn't built at John Wayne to end up as an extra storage space. There will be flights from Orange County to Mexico. To paraphrase the Spanish-dubbed version of the voice Kevin Costner heard in "Field of Dreams," "Si lo construyes, ellos vendrán."

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