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LA/Ontario International Airport sees 31% fewer passengers

The recession is blamed for the plunge in January compared with the same month a year ago. At LAX, domestic traffic is off 10% and there are 14% fewer international passengers.

February 25, 2009|Dan Weikel

Battered by the deepening economic recession, the number of passengers at LA/Ontario International Airport continued to plunge in January, falling by an unprecedented 31% compared with the same month last year, new figures show.

Meanwhile, the number of domestic passengers at Los Angeles International Airport fell almost 10% from last year, while international travelers dropped by more than 14% despite heavily discounted airfares at home and abroad.

What is happening at Ontario "is not surprising to me. We have a tough situation, no doubt about it," said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX, Ontario and Van Nuys Airport, a general aviation facility.

Ontario International used to be one of the fastest-growing airports in Southern California and a cornerstone of a policy to regionalize air travel by spreading the growth in passengers from busy LAX to other airports in the Los Angeles area. Over the last year, ExpressJet, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have eliminated or slashed service, with the largest reduction by Southwest.

No other airport in the region has been hit as hard by the downturn. Passenger statistics released Tuesday show that Ontario handled 364,893 travelers last month, compared with 530,284 in January 2008. Last year, the airport handled about 6.2 million passengers, a decline of about 1 million or 13.5% from 2007.

"It is a huge amount," said Jack Keady, an aviation consultant based in Playa del Rey. "Ontario is dependent on Riverside and the Inland Empire, where foreclosures are high, unemployment is high and there is no job creation. People are afraid to spend money today on discretionary travel."

If trends continue, the drop-off could be so severe that one of the airport's two terminals would no longer be needed, a dramatic setback for Ontario's plan to accommodate more than 10 million passengers in the future. More than $275 million was spent building the terminals, which were financed with bonds. They opened in 1998.

The continuing declines have put pressure on Ontario's airlines, which face the prospect of increasing landing fees and terminal rents. Earlier this month, Los Angeles World Airports raised terminal rents 15% from $131 to $150 per square foot, retroactive to July 1.

Lindsey said the airport agency is reducing staff, cutting costs, working with the airlines and trying to attract new service to Ontario -- something that could develop in the next month or two.

At LAX, the number of all passengers dropped from 4.8 million for January 2008 to 4.27 million last month. Of the total, the volume of international travelers fell from 1.46 million to 1.25 million. Overall, the number of passengers served by the nation's fourth-largest airport declined from 62.4 million in 2007 to 59.5 million in 2008.

Lindsey said most of the reductions in foreign travel were due to U.S. airlines cutting back on their international service. She added that airlines that serve the Tom Bradley International Terminal had declines of only about 6%.

"I am not sanguine about that. It is disturbing, but it is better than seeking the same kind of softening from the international carriers," Lindsey said.

The declines in air travel coincide with recent efforts to advance a multibillion-dollar renovation of LAX, including new gates, concourses and a grand central hall at the Bradley terminal. Plans also call for a new midfield concourse, a cross field taxiway, a large passenger-processing facility across from the Bradley terminal and a people mover.

"Capital expenditures and operating expenditures will need to be watched closely," Keady said. "The fewer passengers you have, the fewer gates you will need. But the long-term view is a different story. No one can predict that."

Passenger losses also continued at other commercial airports in the region. John Wayne Airport in Orange County served 592,370 passengers last month, a decline of 16% compared with January 2008. Palm Springs was down 9.3% for the month. The only airport bucking the trend was Long Beach, with an increase of 8.3%.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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