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John Wayne Airport gains international status with new flights

June 5, 2012 |  4:48 pm

John Wayne Airport

It began as the most modest of airports – passengers trudged across the tarmac to climb aboard departing jets, a double-wide served as a terminal and on weekends, drag races were held in the parking lots.

And even as John Wayne Airport grew into a larger regional transit hub, with scores of flights each day, it was stunted in becoming something bigger because of its short runways and a cap on how many passengers could pass through the terminal gates.

But the addition of two new flights to Mexico that began this week — in addition to flights to Canada that began recently —have given international status to Orange County’s only commercial airport.

“It takes John Wayne Airport to the next level,” said Jenny Wedge, an airport spokeswoman.

Daily flights to Mexico City and Cabo San Lucas on AirTran Airways, a smaller airline owned by Southwest Airlines, began Sunday, joining flights to Calgary and Vancouver. Customs agents have been added.

Wedge said the international flights will possibly draw in more fliers to the airport, which has seen its passenger traffic fall off from a peak of 9.9 million in 2007. Last year, the airport had 8.6 million passengers.

She said the flights will attract two crowds: Cabo will pull in the tourists and the party-minded, while Mexico City will appeal to Orange County’s Latino community. And so far, flights have been full.

On Tuesday, Melinda Waechter, 29, was checking in for the noon flight to Cabo. Her group was headed to the tip of Baja for a friend’s wedding.

“It’s an excellent option to come here rather than go through that mess,” she said, referring to Los Angeles International Airport.

She was among many who were pleased to have an alternative.

It’s closer to home, for one. And it’s in a gleaming new terminal that opened last November, filled with glass, sand-colored tile and sunlight – the third terminal at the airport.

One of Waechter’s traveling companions marveled at how clean and new the airport appeared, and another complimented the friendly workers.  “They’re the ones that make the trip enjoyable,” said Bryan Mann, 31.

Although there was a line for security, checking in was as breezy as the beach in Cabo.

Rather than a bottleneck, the ropes were nothing more than a maze for fliers to pass through on the way to the ticket counter, which had been decked out for the occasion with balloons and, but of course, a sombrero.

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-- Rick Rojas

Photo: A jet prepares to land at John Wayne Airport. Credit: Allen J. Schaben.

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