Even as the concrete dried, airport planners realized the new terminals at John Wayne Airport would not be enough to support passenger growth.
Now, 17 years later, the number of passengers pouring into John Wayne is setting records, and a half-billion-dollar expansion project to handle more travelers with a third terminal, added parking and a customs office to inaugurate international flights has begun. The work is expected to be completed in four years.
In August, at the height of the travel season, nearly 1 million passengers passed through John Wayne.
"We only have 14 gates, and we just can't handle that many passengers," airport director Alan Murphy said, adding that maintenance and baggage handling were suffering. "Our passenger levels are the highest ever."
High passenger numbers have helped Murphy answer critics who questioned the economic value of adding a 300,000-square-foot terminal with six additional gates when the airport is limited by a court agreement as to how many passengers can fly out of the airport in a given year.
The county, which operates the airport, agreed to a formula that limits the number of passengers to 10.3 million a year. That figure can gradually grow to 10.8 million through 2015. The agreement is the result of a 1985 settlement to a lawsuit filed by Newport Beach, which is under the airport's takeoff pattern and has been militant about limiting departures. The settlement limits hours of operation, noise and passengers.
Though small at 500 acres and with only one commercial runway, John Wayne is one of the nation's busiest airports. It is sixth in the state for number of passengers but more people -- 520,000 -- go through each gate than at any other U.S. airport.
"The airport's infrastructure can't take it anymore," Murphy said, explaining the pressing need for the expansion, which will be mostly funded by airport revenue and bonds.
Leonard Kranser, a South County resident who fought the effort to build an international airport at the former El Toro Marine base, said the county should push quickly to increase the number of passengers who can use John Wayne Airport once the expansion is complete. At the very least, John Wayne should have 12 million passengers a year, he said.
Kranser points out that San Diego's Lindbergh Field, with its single runway on a slightly larger site and with a similar curfew, served 17.4 million passengers last year. Both airports have curfews that limit hours of operation, though San Diego has no restrictions on the number of passengers per year.
John Wayne's importance has grown as both LAX and Long Beach Airport near their growth limits. There are few other local options for travelers. In 2002, Orange County voters -- in an expensive battle between Newport Beach and southern Orange County residents over what part of the county would be subjected to jet noise -- decided that El Toro should be turned into a park rather than a commercial airport.
Newport Beach is not nervous. At least not yet.
"My nervousness will start Jan. 1, 2016, when the agreement goes away," Newport Beach City Manager Homer Bludau said.
Instead of tension, there is detente, Bludau said. Relations are cordial, perhaps because the airport can now expand while Newport was given veto power over any airport decision to lengthen its commercial runway or acquire property for an additional runway.
"We know there are some airlines who would like to get a larger share of the passenger pie at John Wayne. But the airport has to live by the agreement," he said.
Murphy said the airport would abide by the agreement, in spite of a push for JWA and other regional airports to handle more traffic. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for one, wants LAX to handle more international flights and send national air traffic to other airports in the region.
"This is not new; the international traffic is more lucrative, and actually LAX is in a better position to service that," Murphy said. "Right now, we're the only airport in the region that is expanding its facilities."
The county's major businesses would like a much larger airport, but groups such as the Orange County Business Council understand the "delicate balance" that must be kept with business interests and residents near the airport, said Lucy Dunn, council chief executive.
"We're the fifth-largest county in America, and we need a vital airport to help sustain our economy, business and tourism," Dunn said.
International flights to Canada and Mexico would give the airport a higher profile in the region. Alaska Airlines and a Canadian airline have expressed interest for flights to Toronto and Mexico and other Latin American countries once the new terminal is completed, Murphy said.
"In addition, Southwest has requested additional passengers that we haven't been able to grant because of the agreement not to exceed the passenger caps," Murphy said.
For residents who live in the flight path, their fear is that it's only a matter of time before the agreement ends and more flights are allowed.
Nancy Alston, a retired schoolteacher, has lived in Newport Beach for 21 years. Alston and her neighbors don't need a clock to know it's 7 a.m.; they can tell by the whine of the jetliners taking off and flying overhead.
She is a member of AirFair, a group started five years ago. According to its website -- the motto is "10.8 Lock the Gate" at John Wayne -- AirFair seeks to motivate residents affected by jet noise in Newport Beach and other Orange County cities.
"We believe the airport has enough capacity right now to handle the passenger load," she said. Allowing an expansion will only bring more flights and a larger airport after the agreement ends.
"This will be an international airport," she said. "John Wayne has gone from a small little airport into a major player."