Balboa Island Museum remembers AirCal, Newport Beach’s ‘hometown’ airline

Orange County consumers have their choice in airlines when it comes to flying out of the county.

Several major airlines serve travelers today, but back in the 1970s the lineup included Air California, which the Balboa Island Museum calls Newport Beach’s “hometown” airline.

Air California was founded in 1967 by five businessmen in Corona del Mar and was headquartered in Newport Beach.

John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana served as the “home” airport for the airline, which primarily offered intrastate service during its run, taking customers from Orange County to cities like San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego. At the time, round-trip flights cost about $15, plus tax.

The airline purchased in 1981 for $61.5 million by real estate magnates George Argyros and William Lyon. It was then rebranded from Air California to AirCal.

AirCal memorabilia from the 1970s and 1980s on display at Balboa Island Museum in Newport Beach.

(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The airline eventually expanded to have routes to other states, including Alaska, Illinois, Oregon and Nevada.

Balboa Island Museum president Shirley Pepys said the inspiration for an exhibit focusing on AirCal came out of a conversation she had with Julia Argyros about six months ago. The museum already had an established relationship with the Argyros family and was also familiar with Lyon, who died in May 2020.

“You know how sometimes you’re just sitting and talking? I just think it was one of those random things,” said Pepys.

The plan was to organize the exhibit after Lunar New Year.

The installation took just a few days to set up. Pepys said she thinks it will offer a fun memory for residents old enough to remember the airline that in 1987 was sold to and absorbed by American Airlines.

“I think AirCal was so familiar to Orange County,” Pepys said. “There is great history, and it’s a fondness at remembering AirCal. They were the first flight from us [in Orange County] to San Francisco.”

The AirCal exhibit at Balboa Island Museum in Newport Beach is on view through the end of May.

The AirCal exhibit at Balboa Island Museum in Newport Beach is on view through the end of May.

(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The exhibit opened earlier this month and will be open to visitors through May 31 at the Balboa Island Museum. Admission is free. The exhibit includes photos, uniforms and other paraphernalia from AirCal — some, Pepys added, were gathered from the pilots, flight attendants and other employees.

The museum plans a special event on March 24, when, for $20, visitors will be able to hear stories from former AirCal employees.

“They’re a very tight-knit group and they have been very generous with the museum themselves,” said Pepys.

Balboa Island Museum is located at 210 Marine Ave., Newport Beach. For more information call (949) 675-3952 or visit balboaislandmuseum.org.

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