ONTARIO — In 1979, when some people thought Ontario International Airport was either a boondocks airstrip or located somewhere in Canada, about 17 million pounds of air freight moved off its Tarmac.
These days, the airport handles more than a million pounds a day ranging from letters and parcels to race horses and jet engines, making it the 16th-busiest air freight center in the nation, officials said.
But the booming cargo business here is regarded as anything but a cause for celebration among airport authorities and Ontario city officials.
In what is shaping up to be a conflict between packages and passengers, growing fleets of "flying freight trains" belonging to carriers including United Parcel Service, Federal Express and Emery Worldwide are threatening to gobble up flight operations capacity (takeoffs and landings) originally reserved for travelers, authorities said.
'All Kinds of Business'
"Air cargo is not necessarily what Ontario International envisioned itself as doing," Ontario Mayor Howard Snyder said. "We've always welcomed all kinds of business out here but it becomes a problem when a priority is put on freight haulers, as opposed to trying to cope with passenger requirements, that will be even greater in years to come."
Snyder and some airport officials fear that additional freight traffic could hold up construction of a $200-million passenger terminal here. As it stands, the Inland Empire airport, which serves one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation, is moving nearly twice the 2.5 million annual passengers it was designed to handle.
The problem stems from a limitation on operations set in 1979 under an air quality certificate issued by the California Air Resources Board. It stipulated that the airport handle no more than 12 million passengers a year or 125,000 annual takeoffs and landings.
The airport had requested permission at that time to build an additional runway, and the limitations were designed to mitigate concerns about the air pollution that increased aircraft and automobile traffic would create, officials said.
The limitations were largely based on a belief then that air carriers were moving toward larger jets that would enable airports to move more passengers with fewer flights.
But that is not what happened. Neither airport authorities nor ARB officials anticipated that cargo carriers would flock to Ontario airport in search of room to expand their business and to escape the congestion and automotive snarls at Los Angeles International Airport that can cause delays in delivery.
Nor did they figure that deregulation of the airline industry would unleash a trend toward short-haul, hub flights using smaller and more fuel-efficient aircraft, a development that has resulted in more flights per day.
Approaching the Limit
Both phenomena combined to increase the numbers of takeoffs and landings at the airport, which at 96,000 are now approaching the limit. Today, air freighters account for about 10% of the Ontario airport's takeoffs and landings, airport officials said. By comparison, they said air freighters account for about 2% of LAX's 500,000 annual operations, although total volumes there are much larger.
Los Angeles Department of Airport authorities, who oversee international airport operations in Los Angeles and Ontario, have already begun preliminary discussions with ARB officials aimed at having the cap on operations lifted.
"We're hoping the ARB will say we can keep the 12 million annual passengers limit and drop the 125,000 operations cap," said Michael Di Girolamo, Ontario airport manager. "We can handle the people and the freight both if the cap on aircraft movement is lifted."
ARB spokesman William Sessa said the issue will be given serious attention when airport authorities provide the state agency with a formal proposal.
But the prospect of being turned down is already making many people nervous.
"The new terminal would be a waste of money if we found out that the ARB was not going to amend the certificate and hold us to 125,000 operations a year," Los Angeles City Atty. Jerry Montgomery said. "Every air freight flight gobbles up an operation that doesn't count toward Ontario passengers whatsoever."
Rick Wells, supervising transportation planner at the Los Angeles Department of Airports, agreed. "Development at Ontario is at a standstill until we get this issue resolved with the ARB," Wells said.
Meanwhile, UPS, which creates 80% of the air freight business at Ontario, is charging ahead with plans to build a $53-million sorting and distribution hub here on 163 acres of property adjacent to the airport, said Ken Sternad, spokesman for the delivery company. The facility would create 1,200 jobs in the area and an estimated annual payroll of $29 million, he said.
"We are going to be bringing packages into Ontario from all over the world," Sternad said. "We currently have 11 flights a day . . . and we will be going up to 22 a day by 1995."