Orange County Adds Capacity

April 15, 2012
The John Wayne Airport Improvement Program includes a new multi-level Terminal C with six new commercial passenger gates, a common use passenger processing system (CUPPS), a fully integrated baggage screening system, and much more

With a background in finance and accounting, John Wayne Airport (SNA) director Alan Murphy came to the airport business from the business perspective. Murphy has been at SNA since 1986 working on things like lease agreements between various tenants and airline partners.

In the late ‘80s Murhpy led the team that built Terminals A and B (the Thomas F. Riley Terminal); he was facilities director until he took the airport director position in 2000.

"There isn’t anything out here that currently exists that I didn’t have a hand in building through some level of involvement," relates Murphy.

"Especially for the large and medium-sized airports, there’s a lot of recognition now-a-days that the airport is a business in its own right. I have been lucky to be involved in just about all aspects of the airport’s operation, which gives me a good rounded insight and level of experience to do the overall job."

The Orange County Market

Comments Murphy, "We really have our segment of the market here, and we compete well. One of the great things about John Wayne is it’s large enough that it generates the resources and the markets that make it attractive, but it’s small enough that it doesn’t have the congested feel you may find at a larger airport.

SNA serves some 8.6 million passengers annually. The recession has hit the medium-sized hubs a little more, says Murphy. "While we are doing better than most in that category, it has hit us — in 2007 we had some ten million passengers. It has been pretty flat the last two years; we are starting to see some increases."

The airport is in the midst of opening up some additional markets, beginning international service to Mexico in June with two flights per day, one each to Cabo San Lucas and Mexico City.

Primarily serving O&D traffic (some 98 percent), people coming to the airport are either flying to or from Orange County; there’s not a lot of connecting traffic.

"Being O&D is one of our strengths," says Murphy. "Our traffic is based on the inherent demand for travel in and out of Orange County.

"Also, the demographics in Orange County are pretty amazing for air travel. Every other year we do a survey of our passengers; generally we find the median income for passengers is more than $100,000 per year.

"The challenge is that those folks have very high expectations as far as the level of service and facilities here. We have to constantly keep that in mind and make sure that we are meeting that high level of expectation."

Enter the airport's capital improvement program (CIP), which has been underway since 2009. The completed Terminal C includes six new bridged aircraft gates, a new commuter terminal, more security checkpoints, and new dining and retail options.  All in all, the Improvement Program adds 282,000 square feet of new space to the existing 448,000 square feet in Terminals A and B.

"The new terminal was built to supplement what we had, and also to take the load off," relates Murphy. "The existing terminal facilities were built to handle some 8.4 million passengers. While I think we were still providing a very high quality passenger experience, when we got to 10 million passengers, we could see that behind the scenes we were overtaxing our baggage handling systems — and our gate throughput and turn per gate numbers were the highest in the industry.

"So we needed to take the pressure off a little bit; building Terminal C allows us to do that by spreading the operation out, and making the facilities more flexible."

Another goal was add facilities the the airport had not been able to have in Terminals A and B, such as a Customs and Border Protection facility so that SNA could start looking at some limited international service.

That has opened up some potential for service to Mexico, which the airport has been focusing on developing for the last nine months.

"We’ve got two operations to Mexico starting in June with Air Tran; and we have quite a bit of interest from some other carriers, including some foreign flag carriers," explains Murphy.

"Also, to the extent we can, we would like to increase some of our transcontinental service. Currently we have operations to New York, but markets we would like to pursue would be the Washington D.C. area, and Philadelphia," he adds.

Planning Challenges

With regard to the airport's physical footprint, SNA is located on slightly more than 500 acres.

"We spent quite a bit of time doing a lot of upfront planning for the new terminal, and looking at the different options available to us in terms of what made sense considering the existing terminals," comments Murphy. "Also, from the airline perspective, what’s the most efficient way to operate the facility?

"We ended up with some rather counter-intuitive conclusions. For example, we tore down a perfectly good parking structure to build Terminal C. But that allowed us to consolidate the operations so that we had all three terminals adjacent to each other, which was a major challenge for the airlines previously.

"That strategy also limited the impact of the construction process on passengers using the existing facilities.

"The feedback I get from our customers and passengers is that it was a pretty easy transition. That is due to a lot of upfront planning and finding mitigations for potential issues that would arise during construction."

Terminal C was designed in BIM (business information model). "With BIM, all of the functional aspects of the terminal — mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural, etc. — all get integrated into one model," explains Murphy. "That allows us to identify any conflicts early on in the design process, and to make changes as part of the design as opposed to making the changes in the field during construction."

Common Use and Baggage Technology

As for functionality in the terminal itself, the airport has had an ongoing interest in trying to make the gate and counter areas more efficient, relates Murhpy. "We only had 14 gates to process some 10 million passengers per year, so in order to do that, we want to have the ability to move carriers around and get as much efficiency out of the facility as we can."

To that end, the airport has implemented CUPPS (common use passenger processing system). "We not only did that with the six new gates and ticket counters associated with Terminal C, but we have also gone in and retrofitted all of Terminals A and B as well," says Murphy.

"So now we have a situation with a common use system where any airline can operate out of any gate, and they can actually expand or contract their operations at the ticket counters very simply by logging into the counter space.

"From a passenger perspective, it means you can check-in at any kiosk in the complex for any airline. I think that provides a lot of functionality and flexibility for the carriers, passengers, and the airport."

SNA has also completely changed out and upgraded the FIDS (flight information display systems).

With regard to baggage screening technology, Murphy says after 9/11 — and the mandated requirement to provide 100 percent screening of checked bags — SNA was one of the first airports to implement an airport-wide integrated and automated baggage screening system (Terminals A and B).

"We have built a similar system for Terminal C … and we are now going to the next step with TSA by networking all three systems together," comments Murphy. "All three terminal baggage screening systems will be operated out of Terminal C; that will be pretty much a first for the industry.

"By networking the machines in one location together, during off-peak times — four machines can be operated by one person. That frees up TSA staff to perform other activities; there are some real cost and personnel savings for the administration there."

Facility Design 

"One of my travel pet peeves is when I go down to a baggage claim where I am stuck in a cave with low ceilings and a lot of noise from mechanical systems; It’s just not very welcoming," relates Murphy.

"When we were designing Terminals A and B in the late 1980’s, we were looking to make it a much more welcoming experience by opening up the space; we did that with the very large vaulted ceilings over the baggage claim areas.

"we took the same approach with the architecture of Terminal C. Gensler was involved in the design of the original terminals, so it was easy for them to make the transition for the new terminal."

One of the things the airport is very proud of: Terminal C has incorporated the newest of the new in terms of technology and energy efficiency. "When you transition from Terminal B to Terminal C as a traveler, you really can’t tell that you have entered a new terminal," explains Murhpy. "It really is a seamless transition; we are now going back and doing some retrofits in Terminals A and B because to us, it’s really important to have a kind of equality among the facilities."

About the Author

Brad McAllister | Editor