Hoping to reverse a dramatic loss of airline passengers, Ontario city officials on Tuesday unveiled a proposal to wrest control of struggling LA/Ontario International Airport from Los Angeles, which, they say, has driven away air carriers by raising costs and failing to promote the facility.
Under the plan, the Inland Empire city would manage and set policy for LA/Ontario International while Los Angeles would remain the owner and serve as an advisor to the airport's directors.
City officials say their proposal is necessary to stop the dramatic decline of LA/Ontario, which used to be one of the fastest-growing regional airports in the country. From 2007 to 2009, the number of passengers dropped almost a third from about 7.2 million to 4.9 million — amid the recession — and flight schedules indicate that air carriers plan to reduce service 8% further by the end of this year.
The downturn, city officials say, has cost the economy of the Inland Empire more than 8,000 jobs and $400 million. They note that a recovery at LA/Ontario is expected to be much slower than at other airports in the region. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, LA/Ontario's passenger levels will not reach 6 million again until 2030.
"Mismanagement has contributed to the problems out there," said Ontario Mayor Pro Tem Alan Wapner. "Business is down, both in passengers as well as cargo. This is directly attributable to high costs. A very small portion of the decline was actually due to the recession."
Though they have yet to see a formal proposal, Los Angeles officials said Ontario's plan is worth pursuing. It is consistent, they said, with one of the options offered by their own study in August: that a private company or a local government be brought in to manage some or all of the airport's facilities.
Differing from Wapner, Los Angeles World Airports contends that Ontario and the discount travel market it served were hit especially hard by the recession. Since then, they said, efforts have been made to lower costs and encourage air carriers to locate there.
According to the proposal, LA/Ontario is more expensive for airlines compared with other commercial airports in Southern California. The cost per passenger was at least $14.50 for fiscal year 2009-10.
At the same time, the cost at Los Angeles International was $11, and it was even less at other airports: $9.93 at Orange County's John Wayne, $5.34 at Long Beach, $4.07 at Palm Springs and $2.10 at Burbank.
Ontario officials say they can reduce their cost by lowering or eliminating the $8.7 million in administrative fees that Los Angeles annually collects from the airport.
LA/Ontario's staff of 302 — about twice that of larger John Wayne — can be cut as well, according to the proposal. Substantial savings also could result from lifting the union-backed Los Angeles living wage ordinance, which now applies to airport workers at LA/Ontario.
In addition, the proposal would bolster the airport's marketing budget, which, city officials say, has been cut by Los Angeles World Airports from $3 million a year in 2007 to $400,000 now.
Wapner, the liaison between the city and Los Angeles World Airports, said he wants to make substantial progress on the proposal by the end of the year.