It's always been an oddity that L.A./ Ontario International Airport (ONT) — located 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles in San Bernardino County — has been operated by Los Angeles. That arrangement worked well for more than 40 years. But it doesn't now, and that must be fixed for the good of the entire region.
While other secondary airports in Southern California have rebounded from 9/11, weathered the recession and increased market share, ONT has fallen on hard times. Today, it operates at passenger traffic levels not seen in nearly a quarter-century, and its market share continues to decline. As a result, the city of Ontario feels strongly that the success of ONT as an integral part of Southern California's airport system requires that local control be restored.
During the 1960s, ONT often accommodated airplanes diverted from Los Angeles International Airport when that facility was fogged in. Consequently, the cities of Ontario and Los Angeles felt it would be in the best interests of the Southern California region if Los Angeles took responsibility for operating the airport since L.A. had airport operations expertise and crucial airline relationships. To that end, the two cities signed an agreement in 1967. Today, however, Los Angeles has an inherent conflict of interest in controlling both airports. As Los Angeles struggles to regain lost traffic at LAX and to pay for a multibillion-dollar expansion, it views ONT as something of a competitor deserving scant attention.
To avoid this conflict, Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates both facilities, must relinquish control of ONT and concentrate on LAX. The need for this was highlighted by LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey's comments at the July 14 meeting of the L.A. Board of Airport Commissioners:
"Now continuing to pursue a strategy that actively pushes traffic away from the city of Los Angeles and into other jurisdictions could be viewed as a little self-destructive."
LAWA's reduced commitment to Ontario is manifested in other ways. A September study commissioned by Ontario to explore the reasons for the airport's decline included the following findings: a smaller budget for the marketing needed to attract new air service and scant concern about the high airport charges that make it difficult for airlines to make a profit at the facility. These high charges result from overstaffing at the airport, high labor costs and a 15% LAWA administrative fee that Ontario bears as part of its operating budget.
For elected officials and residents of Los Angeles alike, the reasons for restoring local control of ONT are compelling. This action would:
• Allow LAWA to focus its energy and time on LAX for the benefit of the region's economy as a whole.
• Promote regionalization by returning ONT to local control, which is proved to be conducive to developing robust regional airports because the sponsoring community has a vested interest in the airport making the greatest contribution to its economy.
• Ensure that all of Southern California — including Los Angeles — will have sufficient, sensibly priced airport capacity. Without adequate capacity, airlines will be forced to land elsewhere. Poor airport planning has already harmed the Los Angeles economy. A few years ago, Qantas relocated one flight from LAX to San Francisco International Airport — along with the $300 million the flight contributed to the local economy — because LAX lacked adequate infrastructure to handle the aircraft.
• Shift responsibility, accountability and risk for ONT's performance from L.A. to Ontario.
ONT must not be allowed to continue its downward spiral. It is too important to Southern California's economy, and it is essential to help meet the region's long-term demands for air travel.
For these reasons, the 83-member Regional Council of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, or SCAG, recently voted unanimously — in an unusual move without further discussion — to recommend the transfer of ONT to local control.
"Southern California must have a robust system of regional airports both to accommodate local demand and to minimize automobile traffic and emissions resulting from unnecessary reliance on LAX," said SCAG in a Sept. 2 letter to Miguel Santana, L.A.'s city administrative officer. "As airline traffic rebounds and LAX approaches its practical capacity based on ground access and facilities, the region's need for a fully developed and healthy ONT will become increasingly important."
It is time for Los Angeles to transfer management and operational control of ONT back to Ontario.
Alan D. Wapner is mayor pro tem of Ontario.