Airport Director Charlene Reynolds, who took the reins at John Wayne Airport (JWA) about a year ago, plans to incorporate around $700 million worth of updates across the airport over the next seven years.
The airport has selected over 30 programs that require upgrades, from basic replacements of the escalators and the baggage handling systems to more tech-forward renovations including digital signage and updating ticketing kiosks.
“I spent a lot of my first year understanding first the operations, the community, and the overall needs of the airport,” Reynolds told the Business Journal.
Reynolds said that a formal capital improvement plan like this had not been proposed for some time—the last major CIP program was developed in 2009.
She said her first several months as director were spent identifying these projects and then planning for financing, timelines and operational impact.
In addition to the widespread infrastructure improvement plans, JWA is in the midst of implementing its general aviation improvement plan—which comprises 60% of the airport’s business—and updating its roster of concession operators with several new restaurants opening within the next month.
“Establishing a format as the airport continues even beyond my tenure—I’ve set this strategy in place so that we’re always looking at [things] from an infrastructure improvement standpoint,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds served as the chief commercial officer of the Houston Airport System before joining the team at John Wayne Airport.
Prior to that, she spent most of her career in the city of Phoenix in the transportation department and the city manager’s office for 15 years.
She was also at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport as the interim and assistant aviation director.
“I didn’t want to make this airport like Houston or like Phoenix because every airport is unique,” Reynolds said. “It’s projects like this that we really need to have a formal plan for today and going into the future.”
The plan was approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors on June 6.
Financing for the Future
Funding for the improvement plan has already started with a federal grant paying for a portion. Another source includes passenger facility charges, according to Reynolds.
Each ticket purchase comes with a $4 fee which compiles into a specific fund for upgrading the airport facilities.
Other financing measures are being examined as well. In total, 36 different projects have been identified with a price tag of about $711 million, Reynolds said.
Improvements that are likely to start this year include new elevators, escalators and lighting as well as a focus on adding EV charging stations and starting taxiway reconstruction.
“How do I take the best of the existing programs that we have, and make them even better? That’s something I want to do, and what I have to do,” Reynolds said.
Other improvements include increasing technology in airport spaces such as contactless tech, faster Wi-Fi services and online parking reservations.
“We’re in a world where technology dominates,” she said.
Future investments could include a focus on electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, or eVTOLs.
Companies like United Airlines have announced major investments in such firms; United committed $15 million to Eve Air Mobility with a purchase of 200 electric air taxis for delivery in 2026.
That could provide a boost to local eTVOL upstarts like Supernal, which has its engineering base in Irvine, and Santa Ana flying taxi startup Overair, which is developing an all-electric eVTOL aircraft called Butterfly that will land and take off vertically with up to five passengers and a pilot.
Reynolds is currently leading a redevelopment of JWA’s concessions program to bring more Orange County businesses and vendors into the airport.
The airport is currently soliciting a Request for Proposal (RFP) to help redevelop 80% of the program to bring a new restaurant and retail concepts to 37,000 square feet of space over the next year and a half.
Three new restaurants are slated to open in the next month at John Wayne, with Vietnamese quick-service Brodard Express opening in mid-July and eateries Taps Fish House and Greenleaf to open the following month.
This program refresh is in addition to the $700 million infrastructure plan taken on by Reynolds.
“The new concessionaires will be utilizing the existing footprint of the stores we currently have,” Reynolds said.
“They’ll go in within these four walls, gut that space and then rebuild their new concepts within.”
She added there has been “an outstanding response” to the proposal, with remaining opportunities for concession operators to join the venture.
Even more updates are in store as the final stages of the general aviation facility improvement plan are set for the sites of JWA’s three fixed-base operators (FBOs)—Clay Lacy Aviation, ACI Jet and Jay’s Aircraft Maintenance.
The plan was originally approved by the OC Board in 2019 with the set of FBOs selected in 2020.
Some 500 private general aviation aircraft—whose assorted users include private pilots, small plane owners as well as owners of multimillion-dollar corporate and personal jets—are expected to see a major upgrade of the facilities they use along the southern edges of JWA.
Van Nuys-based Clay Lacy is set to break ground on a new facility later this year, pending final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
A major upgrade has not been seen since 1990, when the last hangars for smaller-sized aircraft were built.
General aviation, which includes the charter operators and private jet business, makes up 60% of JWA’s operations.
The other 40% goes to commercial aviation made up of carriers like Southwest and American Airlines.
“I think my role as the airport director is to lead the messaging as far as what we’d like the airport to be, and that’s something I take very seriously,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds recalls the absence of Orange County merchandise and apparel on her initial visits through the terminals. Since mentioning it in an interview last year, more and more OC branded items have appeared.
“Certainly, those businesses were listening,” she said.
The director attributes the priority of community to the high interest locals have shown in the airport.
“As I go out into the community, all I hear is how it is a great airport,” Reynolds said. “I can tell you, when I was in my other two airports, I did not hear that to that same level.”
The airport will be celebrating “100 Years of Flight” this year with events starting in September.
Surpassing Pre-Pandemic Figures
John Wayne Airport has fully recovered from the pandemic with total passenger count reaching 11.4 million in 2022, a record for JWA and significantly up from the 3.8 million passengers in 2020.
Last year brought seven months of record operations as well, according to airport figures.
Passenger levels for 2023 are already flying above last year’s figures and Airport Director Charlene Reynolds expects this year to surpass last year’s figures by another 100,000.
Air travel in the U.S. has also recovered with passenger volume achieving over 100% of 2019 levels as of January, according to TSA data and Tourism Economics.
Newer stops at JWA include a charter flight connection to and from Aspen through Scottsdale-based Set Jet which started service here in June. In February, Utah’s Breeze Airways was granted three slots and offers the region’s first nonstop connection from California’s OC to Orange County (MCO) in Orlando, Fla.
There are over 40 nonstop destinations at John Wayne. The top five to and from the airport are Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and Dallas.
The current passenger cap is 11.8 million which can’t be raised until 2026. This mainly applies to the commercial operators at the airport, according to Reynolds.