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Ontario Gets More Service to Mexico

Aviation: Daily flight to Hermosillo is expected to help spread travel among Southland airports.

January 09, 2002|JENNIFER OLDHAM and JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles city officials stepped up their efforts to spread air travel among Southern California's regional airports with the inauguration Tuesday of a daily flight between Ontario International Airport and the northwest Mexican town of Hermosillo.

But even as lawmakers attempted to move forward with their pre-Sept. 11 agenda for redistributing air traffic, economic fallout from the terrorist attacks continued to reverberate in the city's airport agency.

Lost revenue and increased security costs since the attacks prompted the Airport Commission on Tuesday to unanimously approve a steep increase in parking rates at Los Angeles International Airport, Ontario airport and the Van Nuys FlyAway lot.

Later in the same meeting, several representatives of LAX businesses pleaded with the seven commissioners for an extension of the $9.5 million in rent relief they received last year. The cuts were in compensation for business lost after the terrorist attacks.

It remained unclear Tuesday whether such financial relief will occur. Mayor James K. Hahn said airport businesses have already received rent reductions among the most generous of any major airport in the country.

"We're all going through a lot of pain out at LAX. The key to that is not giving more [rent] concessions, but to figure out how we get more traffic and more passengers and business," Hahn told reporters at Ontario airport, which is operated by the city of Los Angeles. "That's where I want to focus my efforts."

The challenges facing local airports were evident just a few yards from where the mayor joined a mariachi band and dancers in welcoming AeroMexico's first flight from Hermosillo to Ontario. A newsstand was closed and the lights turned out at midday, right in the heart of Terminal 2.

But Hahn held out high hopes for the new air service. During a November trade mission, he persuaded the airline to set a specific time frame for implementing the new service.

He said Tuesday that the AeroMexico flights "highlight Ontario as an important new international gateway for travelers."

"Since 9/11, we've seen declines in traffic, and everyone is cutting back," he said. "But we see a commitment and courageousness on the part of AeroMexico to say, 'We're not going to cut back, but we'll expand.' "

Ontario has experienced some of these reductions in service. Since Sept. 11, start-up carrier JetBlue has eliminated one daily nonstop flight to New York, and United Airlines has cut six flights a day between Ontario and San Francisco.

The Inland Empire airport has historically had a tough time getting international service off the ground. AeroMexico is the only airline flying passenger planes into Ontario from abroad.

A service operated by Air Canada to Toronto was canceled after just 89 days. Three airlines canceled service to Guadalajara in 1993 after only eight months.

But, as part of its plan to expand service between Mexico and the U.S., AeroMexico added Ontario to its list of American destinations in December 2000, with flights three times a week between Guadalajara and Ontario.

"Like Ontario, Hermosillo is a thriving industrial center in its own right," said Tony Batista, AeroMexico's manager of sales and distribution in the U.S. "This demonstrates AeroMexico's solid commitment to serving Ontario."

The 1 1/2-hour flight from San Bernardino County to northwest Mexico will deliver passengers to a regional hub where they can make connections to other destinations or remain on the same plane to Mexico City.

City officials hope to reverse Ontario's poor record for international service by making the new airport terminals easier to use.

"We need to do more, because I really want to see Ontario grow," Hahn said. "There is unused capacity out here. The population is moving eastward."

In a letter last summer, Hahn asked airport commissioners to "take immediate steps to make Ontario International Airport a more business-friendly airport," citing six initiatives to attract new air service.

On Tuesday, Airport Commission President Ted Stein gave a progress report on the initiatives as the commission prepared to vote to lower fees charged to airlines to land at Ontario by 22%, the first initiative in Hahn's letter. The commission approved that decrease as it raised landing fees at LAX about 28%.

The commission also voted to lower short-term parking rates in some Ontario lots--the second initiative--while raising them significantly at LAX. Parking revenues since the attacks are down 33% at Ontario and 40% at LAX, said Michael Biagi, division manager of landside operations. He added that increased security at LAX parking garages is costing more than $400,000 a month.

The panel increased the daily rate at lots in the heart of the LAX complex from $24 to $30 and at Ontario from $21 to $28 a day. The Ontario lot is meant for two-hour parking only, but if motorists exceed the limit, they will be charged a $24 penalty on top of the $4 assessed for the two hours.

The airport agency had slashed its budget for promoting Ontario by more than $2 million a year, but it will now spend $150,000 in public funds to market the new AeroMexico service as part of another Hahn initiative.

Airport officials said the future of AeroMexico's new service relies on the Inland Empire's growing Latino population.

"The community has to support that service, or the airline certainly will abandon the market," said Dennis Watson, public affairs director for Ontario airport.

Indeed, on Tuesday, only 11 passengers boarded AeroMexico's maiden flight to Hermosillo.

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