American Airlines Forced To Fly Empty Planes Out Of Orange County Airport

In September I wrote that Southwest Airlines had started capping the number of passengers on its flights in and out of Orange County.

Many planes with capacities of 143 (Boeing 737-700) and 175 passengers (Boeing 737-800) were being sold to just 79, 93, and 100 passengers.

Southwest explained this as the result of “the local community[‘s desire] for environmentally responsible air transportation operations,” forcing all airlines to reduce capacity on flights traveling to/from the airport through the end of the year.

Now American Airlines is refusing to fill empty seats with nonrev passengers through end of year in order to comply with the airport’s passenger caps.

Orange County airport hates airline passengers, which is ironic considering that they are an airport.

Noise concerns led to a 1985 settlement restricting operations south of the airport. Planes aren’t as noisy as they used to be – by a lot – but there are limits on late night and early morning departures (8 a.m. on Sundays). Orange County’s Board of Supervisors set annual passenger limits for the airport, and that creates a slot program. And though they now say passenger limits are related to environmental concerns, they reward flying planes with empty seats.

The good news is if you’re flying in and out of Orange County’s John Wayne Airport you may have a very good chance of an empty middle seat next to you.

However we should be screaming this from the rooftops: flying planes with empty seats is not better for the environment. In fact, it’s worse. The plane is still flying, and people also have to get places through other means.

And this does not even reduce aircraft noise, since the planes are still flying – just with fewer people on board.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s not just AA. No airline can fly non revs out of there when they’re up against that cap. Applies to all airlines. Its snninssne policy

  2. Also, does fewer passengers onboard allow more cargo weight? If so, reducing passengers may have no environmental effect whatsoever.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Gary ! Your last two paragraphs say it all, the Left is so unhinged it’s hard to understand why people even live in these cities.

  4. LOL @TexasTJ – Orange County is as Purple as they come, and the City directly responsible for the caps (Newport Beach) is deep Red. Bad policies come from all sides!

  5. @TexasTJ – last I checked, Orange County was an extremely conservative California enclave.

    This is more about some rich folk elected to the local supervisory board passing short-sighted NIMBY regulations

    But nice try, in pushing your agenda.

    (This is why we can’t have nice things.)

  6. Orange County is no longer extremely conservative. Regardless of who made the policy, it is retarded, and makes no sense.

    Why must these degenerates be in power?

  7. Anyone claiming this is an issue of left wing politics shows how truly biased and blind they are to their own prejudice. The surrounding properties that wanted this are as red as they come in California.

    The actual issue is that these people who live in the coastal areas impacted by the airport are rich people who don’t want the noise. And they basically have a NIMBY attitude on allowing SNA to operate. Ironic given the airport was there longer than the people who moved there.

    Basically, it’s rich people limiting the operations.

  8. @Dan – Agree with you there, buddy! Degenerates OUT!

    Can you imagine: some folks actually will be voting for Trump, a convicted rapist, serial adulterer, and frequnter of prostitutes, as their choice for GOP candidate.

    My word!


  9. They’re bound by a 30-year-old settlement agreement. They can’t do anything about it unless they renegotiate it (again). Of course View From the Right Wing fuels ignorance with ridiculous commentary that they hate passengers. I’m pretty sure they would want more if they could take them. But they entered into this agreement and they’re honoring it, as they should.

  10. I wonder what would happen if the airlines shutdown all operations at SNA for several days or a week. Would a better solution be found.

  11. For those under the delusion that the Orange County Board of Supervisors is currently majority Conservative, take a look at their website ( Of the (5) Supervisors, (3) appear to be clearly liberal (1st, 2nd & 5th Districts), whereas (2) appear to be Conservative (3rd & 4th). That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the 1985 Settlement (regarding noise only) was completed by a wholly Conservative Board. The extension of that into alleged Anthropogenic Climate Change was likely by a Liberal majority (such as it appears to exist today). This is supported by the fact that the actual extension resulted in absolute absurdity and increased (not decreased) jet traffic: With Liberals the Virtue-Signaling and the Narrative are far more important than the actual consequences of their policy.

  12. It all makes sense if you don’t think about. You have to be insane to agree this is going to help alleviate climate change. So airline pilots trying to compute home, will have to take an Uber to another airport

  13. ELIMINATE the routes – ASAP! Don’t fly where you are not wanted. I bet some underserved airports might offer incentives to get a flight redirected their way?

  14. Does this also cap the number of private jets allowed to take off/land??? SNA aka Snobs N A*holes. I know of several PJ owners who fly to their Maui homes and their ski shacks, so don’t pretend to care about the environment.

  15. When the “old” PSA team from San Diego broke the last (noise) restrictions in ‘85/‘86 and opened the Airport for commercial vs only private flight operations, we beat “all” of the opposition using superior engineering. 37 years is a long time for any barrier in aviation to last – well done PSA! Aircraft are now even quieter and more efficient than in 1985/86 (and, yes, bigger). Seems like it is past time for all airlines to negotiate a new operating agreement, but they will need economic-leverage, not industry-changing engineering this time!

  16. I live in OC but only rarely use SNA. I like the choice of overall less expensive seats and broader choice of flights from LAX. I have mastered the “art” of getting to LAX from where I live on Public Transportation (Metrolink+LAX Flyaway bus) and my (Senior) one-way fare is $13.50 from home to airport. I’ll leave SNA to the wealthier folks…no offense. Oh, and BTW, I totally agree with the comments “correcting” TexasTJ on his quite misdirected, biased political poppycock!

  17. It’s not an environmental issue. The passenger cap is due to noise, and was structured as a passenger cap to encourage airlines to fly smaller planes. Of course, airlines don’t fly the 737-500 anymore, the 737 Max has a much higher capacity, same with the Airbus planes.

  18. Marcus,
    Award tickets are not considered nonrev. But airlines are restricting the fare buckets out of SNA and possibly raising prices to avoid filling planes (just as WN has an outright cap on capacity on flights). I’m glad I got my tickets for SNA Dec flying way back in the summer because doubt I’ll find a 20k First redemption to the east coast or a WN $49 anymore.

  19. The flight and passenger cap by carrier is known from the beginning of every year

    If carriers are having to block excessive numbers of passenger seats, they didn’t track their boardings throughout the year or put the right aircraft on the routes from SNA.

    Non-revs are just a casualty.

  20. The flight and passenger cap by carrier is known from the beginning of every year

    If carriers are having to block excessive numbers of passenger seats, they didn’t track their boardings throughout the year or put the right aircraft on the routes from SNA.

    Non-revs are just a casualty.

  21. This is discrimination against the non-revs…who likely are company employees traveling. It is a part of the “benefits” of working for the airlines.

  22. Long Beach Airport is exactly 26 miles from SNA and has longer runways than the 5700 ft runway at SNA. American has served Long Beach off and on over the years – they should just drop SNA and move operatons to Long Beach. See how the economy drops when all the hedge funds operating in the shadow of SNA move to Long Beach. This is not left/righ for a change – as someone said, rich people who don’t want planes over their homes. Of course the airport has had jet service for 40 years – longer than most people have lived there.

  23. Real, unsurprising, news here is AA yet again finding excuse for dumping their miles redeeming loyal customers in favor of any and all paying ones.

  24. @TexasTJ – as Walter Schrokbak in Big Lebowski says, you are out of your element. I live here – matter of fact just flew American SNA-PHX this afternoon – and this has NOTHING to do with liberals vs. conservatives…even though you SO wish it did (“California, BAD!”).

    It has everything to do with rich, Newport Beach NIMBYs doing everything they can to limit noise over their coastal mansions. Yes the environmental claims are dubious at best, but it’s all a cover anyway to just keep the noise down, which if you’ve ever flown out of SNA you’d realize from the steep takeoffs /cutting engines until you are over the Pacific, and the lack of any overnight flight times.

    On another note, I hope everyone truly does believe Gary that SNA hates passengers in order to preserve how easy / clean / uncrowded of an airport SNA is! LAX / LGB / ONT are way better anyway… 😉

  25. Gary – your nuts and so are the fools peddling the same misinformation

    Republican heavy Newport Beach residents pushed for the cap in a settlement with the County of Orange – no leftist elements anywhere

    As the airport got close to a PRIOR cap element it was raised and enforced to remain in the constraints UNTIL 2025.

    All airlines were supportive of this and generally they did well to avoid hitting the cap – but alas you peddle “Orange County airport hates airline passengers”

    The entire premise from the County was to ensure passenger growth 2025 and beyond as aircraft noise profiles are reduced with more modern engines.

    To the person posting about the county board being Liberal today – you’re out of your element. This settlement was done with a mostly Conservative board who wanted to ensure the Airport could grow but doing so without upsetting a mostly Red Newport Beach

    Shameful reporting and utter ignorance shown on the entire noise settlement

  26. Why is AA not flying RJs there?

    Given the restriction, that’s so retarded to fly big planes.

  27. No problem here. Cut the federal funding for the airport and bulldoze the runways. Put together some eco friendly real estate development. Long Beach Airport will enjoy the business.

  28. @Gary, your title is inconsistent with the article: American Airlines Forced To Fly Empty Planes Out Of Orange County Airport

    I also live and fly out of SNA virtually every week, using LAX only when necessary. What airline is flying empty planes out of SNA? Reducing passenger counts to comply with agreements – yes. Flying empty planes – not so much.

    Is the click-bait headline really necessary? I enjoy your blog and really enjoy your occasional in-depth insights. But the click-bait headlines can get pretty annoying.


  29. As a frequent user of SNA, it is a nice airport. The car rentals are on premises and it has a UA and AA lounge. Due to the wealth in the area, airlines can charge a premium fare and it offers AA Flagship service to JFK. Airlines put up with its issues because they make a profit serving the region.

  30. Did you really say, “Orange County airport hates airline passengers”??

    Orange County Airport does not hate airline passengers, and this statement shows how little you know about this industry as a whole. The departure path out of SNA takes you directly over homes that you could never afford in your wildest dreams. This is also true as you go north or south of the airport, which basically means there is a lot of money in that area and money talks.

    Don’t know why I’m shocked that you would post that statement but I’m glad I don’t get the real news from you.

  31. @818PilotGuy – SNA began as an airport in 1923. “Rich people live there” and know it’s an airport. Planes are orders of magnitude quieter when restrictions were put in place 40 years ago. In general planes are also larger. So while the restrictions were meant to encourage flying smaller planes, they cause planes to fly with empty seats. That leaves them with simply a visceral hate, not anything constructive or logical.

  32. Contrary to what a few claim here, I am very skeptical that there are any conservatives “managing” the bureaucracies in California coastal counties. I say this as a native Californian that got to Texas as fast as I could.

  33. BTW, 24 years ago Orange County had the opportunity to close SNA and move airline and commercial operations to the decommissioned Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. Voters turned it down for environmental reasons. Truly unfortunate as it would have solved many airport problems and been environmentally beneficial compared to what they have now. Again, short term goals have long term effects.

  34. @One Trippe – voters turned down the MCAS El Toro airport for the same reason there are caps / curfews at SNA: NIMBYism. Environmental concerns are just a front / red herring.

  35. Anyone who has a complaint or is impacted about needs to thank the climate change waccos that keep getting elected in positions that can dictate this madding nonsense.

  36. ban the corporate jets into SNA and watch how the rich idiots of SNA squeal. The problem isn’t the airliners, it’s the constant corporate jets.

  37. It’s not just nonrevs — it looks like they’re not selling any more seats — revenue or award — on flights into or out of SNA for flights operating thru December 19th.

  38. Rich snobby south county elite, it’s ok if they fly on their private jets,but not the average citizen. Rules for thee not for me.

  39. Go woke go broke……. But it sure makes it hard if you work for an airline in SNA……Get out and vote these arrogant fools out of office!!!!

  40. Nobody should fly into or out of SNA! It’s the wokest of all the woke. Don’t do it. Terrible experience. You’d be supporting Communists. They hate passengers like Gary says!!

  41. Count on TexasTJ, a guy from
    where ? Texas ? spouting off his political hot air without having a clue of what he is talking about.
    You can thank the likes of John Wayne, Newport Bay resident in the ’80s for pushing those noise abatement restrictions and a conservative Board of Supervisors with no vision and no cajones to agree with him and for good measure name the airport after him..
    Brilliant !!!

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