Travelers make their way over the departure deck of John Wayne Airport in 2008. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / September 13, 2010)

John Wayne Airport was once a quaint airstrip with a modest terminal and roll-up boarding stairs.

That all changed 20 years ago this week when the Thomas F. Riley Terminal opened, boosting the airport into the modern age with 14 gates and a stainless steel and a glass-enclosed central lobby.

It was the heralding of a new era of travel and tourism — and debate over its impacts — in Orange County. More flights with more destinations meant a broader swath of tourists and easier jaunts for business travelers.

Today, as the airport expands with a new terminal, some reflect on the benefits and drawbacks to having an international airport in the backyard, or Back Bay, as it were.

"It took us from being a cute little terminal into a legitimate regional airport," said Gary Sherwin, president of Visit Newport, the local visitors bureau.

Since it opened in 1990, the Riley terminal has nearly doubled in its passenger volume — from 4.5 million per year to 8.7 million today. Named after the Orange County supervisor who was key in negotiating the expansion, the terminal accommodates 10 commercial, two commuter and two all-cargo airlines.

"It's big enough where it makes us a competitive destination, but it's not so big that visitors have difficulty navigating it," Sherwin said.

By comparison, LAX serves about 60 million passengers per year.

While a customer satisfaction survey by J.D. Power & Associates found travelers' impressions of JWA to be "about average," airport spokeswoman Jenny Wedge said it gets high marks for convenience on in-house surveys.

"It's a pretty smooth and efficient operation," Wedge said. "We use every bit of space we have available to us."

That space will soon grow again when the airport with a Santa Ana address finishes construction of a 280,000-square-foot terminal, providing six more gates for commercial airliners.

The Riley terminal will also get a customs checkpoint, a new airline computer system and revamped ticketing counters. That project is scheduled to be completed before the end of 2011.

Not everybody is happy about the expansion, or the airport's growth, during the past 20 years.

"We have the fear of, 'Build it and they will come,'" said Melinda Seely, president of the activist group Airfair, which lobbies for tight airport restrictions and less impact on Newport Beach residents.

She believes that John Wayne won't meet its current limit of 10.8 million passengers per year for many years to come, so there's no need to expand now.

Seely, who has lived in Newport for 55 years, remembers when "it was a little tiny airport, comfortable, not noisy," she said.

While millions of new passengers have passed through the Riley terminal since 1990, many of the concessioners have remained the same.

Creative Croissants, McDonald's and Paradies, a news and gift shop, have all operated there since 1990.

Danny Park, whose family owns Creative Croissants, said travelers and neighboring employees can be very friendly.

"They've developed a bond with my family," he said. "They know us as a staple."

Through the 1990s a number of film crews shot scenes in the Riley terminal, notable for its airy and light interior. "The Insider," with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, and "Jerry Maguire" were both shot at JWA. That was before 2001, when security restrictions limited filming near gates.