SANTA ANA, Calif. — A few months ago, John Wayne Airport director Charlene Reynolds's sister-in-law asked her to bring a souvenir — a shirt that says Orange County.

Reynolds scoured the shops inside the airport. She couldn't find one.

"I only found [a shirt that says] LA," said Reynolds to Spectrum News. "There again is part of my angst. I really want to showcase Orange County, but if I, as an airport director, can't find a shirt that says Orange County to give to a family member, that's a problem I need to fix."

What You Need To Know

  • New John Wayne Airport director Charlene Reynolds is ready to make significant changes to Orange County's airport

  • The Orange County Board of Supervisors appointed Reynolds last year

  • Among the changes coming to the airport includes the creation of an Air Academy, new restaurants, major infrastructure changes and enhanced guest experience

  • In her first few months as airport director, Reynolds said she attended more than 100 meet-and-greets with the community

Reynolds, appointed John Wayne Airport's director last year, aims to make bold changes in the airport. She wants visitors, from the moment they get off the plane or walk inside the airport, to know that John Wayne is Orange County's airport. 

And it starts with branding, from the stores and the quick-serve restaurants visitors pass daily to the interactions with staff.

"Each airport tries to define itself. You know LAX is LAX, Burbank is Burbank, Long Beach, etc.," she said. "What is it for Orange County?"

John Wayne Airport director Charlene Reynolds. (Photo courtesy of Grant Romancia)

As John Wayne Airport readies to celebrate 100 years of flight in Orange County, Reynolds is leading a team to rebrand and revamp Orange County's main airport in Santa Ana.

Famed aviator Eddie Martin opened the first airport in Orange County in 1923.

A couple of years later, the County of Orange purchased four 40-acre parcels of land from the Irvine Co. for $10 each and a decade later purchased the Eddie Martin Airport, John Wayne Airport officials said. 

The county Board of Supervisors renamed the airport after famous movie star and Newport Beach resident John Wayne in 1979.

The airport has grown considerably since its beginning 100 years ago, growing to 13 airlines operating across North America, including Mexico and Canada.

On average, the airport sees nearly 8 million passengers a year. Last year, pent-up travel demand and as pandemic-related restrictions waned, John Wayne saw more than 11.3 million passengers, Reynolds said, a record. 

The county's board appointed Reynolds last year, luring her from Houston Airport System, where she served as a chief commercial officer. She has more than 20 years of experience in the airport industry.

Reynolds hit the ground running, attending more than 100 community meetings and meet-and-greets across Orange County's 34 cities. 

"It's been a whirlwind," she said. "I spent my first four months connecting with the community. I really wanted to build that foundation with the community, [so they know] that I'm here to listen to them, hear their concerns and compliments and what their vision was for the airport."

With feedback from the community, she is working with her team to figure out their mission and vision for the airport. She wants to boost the airport's look and reputation. 

"It's really about refining the guest experience at JWA," she said. "We need to know where we're going, defining our purpose and redefining the guest experience. We are going to do that."

She said the airport is embarking on significant infrastructure improvements, from a new baggage handling system, updating elevators and escalators to adding more electric vehicle charging stations. 

"All of that is part of the guest experience," she said.

Later this year, the airport is creating an Air Academy, a multi-week course where Orange County residents and students can spend a couple of hours a week learning about the airport and how John Wayne Airport operates.

"As they finish that program, we're hoping they can be an advocate for the airport and have a greater appreciation for the airport," she said. 

The airport is also boosting its partnership with various business and tourism groups like Visit Anaheim. 

A quick-serve restaurant inside John Wayne Airport. (Photo courtesy of JWA)

Reynolds and her team are mostly reaching out to local restaurant and shop owners to create a sense of place for passengers. 

"We want healthy options," she said. "We want vegan. We have a huge Asian population. Do we have any restaurants that are reflective of the community? That's a program that we are embarking on," she said.

When it comes to noise complaints, she's asking airlines to bring in their newest and quietest fleets. 

Reynolds said as 2023 begins, visitors should expect more engagement from JWA. In the fall, they'll push a centennial celebration at the airport, celebrating 100 years of flight in Orange County.

"We're revamping our social media presence," she said. "Last month, we had carolers at the terminal. We're expanding our music presence. We really want to create a total experience. And we're coming up with other creative ideas."

Bottom line, she said, she wants visitors and residents to know that the airport is an important asset of Orange County. 

"We are the gateway to the community," she said. "We want people to feel welcomed here and have a great experience. We want to visit our parks, beaches and theme parks, and want them to return."