JSX — the airline formerly known as JetSuiteX — sent out a somewhat odd blast email last week. The airline said it was being told that after this year it couldn’t continue to fly out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County, but it’s far, far more complicated than that. I went digging to find out what was really going on.
In the email, the subject “We Need Your Help to Keep JSX Flying in Orange County Airport” made it sound like a plea for passengers to book tickets or they’d have to cancel money-losing flights. But that wasn’t what was going on. In what was written like a personal letter from CEO Alex Wilcox to travelers, it lays out its case:
This morning I had a very upsetting phone call with an Orange County California official. He told me that as of January 1, 2021, JSX is no longer welcome at Orange County Airport. Since 2018, JSX has been providing the people of Orange County with our unique style of service while contributing millions in economic activity to the region.
I naturally assumed this was a slot issue. John Wayne has a passenger cap on operations thanks to the rich neighbors who don’t like airplane noise, and that has kept airlines out over the years. What I learned is that it’s not a slot issue, but don’t worry… it is most definitely a “rich neighbor” issue.
JSX Is Not Like Other Airlines
If you’ve flown JSX, you know it is a different kind of operation. For the technical geeks, JSX acts like a travel agency that “charters” aircraft from its subsidiary Delux Public Charter. People then buy tickets through JSX for those charters. Because of this arrangement, JSX can fly under FAA Part 380 which means it can do a whole lot of things differently. And since the aircraft operate with 30 seats or less, they can run as Part 135. The legal and regulatory details beyond that don’t really matter. Just know that this means JSX can do things regular airlines can’t.
For example, JSX doesn’t have to send people through standard TSA security screening. It can handle security on its own. It operates its airplanes from a fixed based operator (FBO) which is like a terminal for private jets. It’s a nice experience from the passenger perspective, but in Orange County, this has angered the locals. And that never ends well.
Newport Beach Gets Angry
When aircraft depart from Orange County in normal operations, they fly right over the very wealthy community of Newport Beach. That means the rich residents have a vested interest in the airport. And as is usually the case, those with a lot of money have the ability to make their opponents bend to their will.
If you’ve flown out of Orange County, you know that there is an odd takeoff procedure. You launch straight up and then once off airport property, the engines go back near idle and it feels like you’re falling. You aren’t, but it’s quite a sensation. This is all done simply to keep noise down. Engines at full thrust are a lot louder than those near idle, so this keeps it quieter for those sensitive ears down in Newport Beach. Any changes in traffic get those people all worked up, but thanks to the passenger cap, the operations remain fairly steady… until next year.
Starting on January 1, 2021, the airport’s passenger cap gets raised per the terms of the settlement that created this system. Instead of 10.8 million passenger per year, the airport can accommodate 11.8 million. So more traffic is coming, and that has to have residents on alert.
With JSX operating as a public charter, it actually gets around those caps entirely. In fact, it’s been allowed to operate from its current FBO with a limit of 95,070 passengers per year. Already facing an increase next year, local residents are undoubtedly looking for ways to strangle the airport’s traffic. It looks like they found one, and JSX loses.
When All Else Fails, Restrict the FBO
The FBOs on the airport all had their leases come up for renewal, and that presented an opportunity to cut JSX at the knees. In the new leases which go into effect on January 1 — and which were approved last night — FBOs are prohibited from servicing what are called “Regularly Scheduled Commercial Users.”
This is actually a defined term in the airport’s Commercial Airline Access Plan and Regulation, section 2.40.
Regularly Scheduled Commercial User means any person conducting aircraft operations at JWA for the purpose of carrying passengers, freight, or cargo where such operations: (i) are operated in support of, advertised, or otherwise made available to members of the public by any means for commercial air transportation purposes, and members of the public may travel or ship commercial Cargo on the flights; (ii) the flights are scheduled to occur, or are represented as occurring (or available) at specified times and days; and (iii) the person conducts, or proposes to operate, departures at JWA at a frequency greater than two (2) times per week during any consecutive three (3) week period.
By this definition, JSX is most definitely a Regularly Scheduled Commercial User, and that means that it can’t use an FBO any more. John Wayne spokesperson Deanne Thompson confirmed to me that, “JetSuiteX may operate from the Thomas F. Riley Terminal at John Wayne Airport, in the same manner as the other commercial and commuter carriers.” That appears to be the only option… but is it even an option?
Backed Into a Corner
JSX will say it can’t operate from the main terminal. It doesn’t have any of the slot allocations for next year, though it might be able to pick some up the way Spirit did recently. Still, it seems unlikely that it could get what it wants.
Even if it could get the slots, it’s not clear that JSX would do it. As it said in the letter it sent out:
JSX is happy to remain at our current location or to move to another suitable space at the Orange County Airport, including the main terminal, as long as we are able to continue providing our JSX customers with a safe, seamless, and secure “hop-on” style of jet service, arriving just 20 minutes before a departing flight.
That means that it would need to be able to have passengers skirt TSA security and easily walk up to the airplane. That doesn’t seem possible. I reached out to JSX multiple times to get a comment on what would make an operation in the main terminal feasible, but all I got was this vague corporate-speak:
We hope to find a way to preserve JSX’s unique business model in Orange County. We’ll continue to work in good faith with the County to do so and we will explore all avenues to ensure our Orange County services are preserved.
Newport Beach Isn’t Done
It sounds like JSX may be out of luck here, and you’d think the people in Newport Beach would be celebrating. But no, they want more. Specifically, they want even more restrictions on FBOs:
- Language that eliminates the ability of any lessee to construct and operate a General Aviation Facility (GAF)
- A term that restricts the operational hours of the FBOs to match the hours of the commercial curfew at John Wayne Airport (JWA).
- The requirement any future modifications to the terms pertaining to commercial use of an FBO, prohibiting a GAF, preserving the majority of the space for small general aviation, and restricting the FBOs’ operating hours to go before the Board of Supervisors for review and approval, after reasonable public notice.
This is going overboard since I don’t think the airport even has the right to restrict some of these things, especially changing the curfew. This is a fight that will likely never end, but unless JSX can figure out a way to operate from the main terminal, its days at John Wayne appear to be numbered.