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As use dwindles, calls grow for local control of Ontario airport

After three decades of steady growth, L.A./Ontario International Airport — a pillar of pride for the Inland Empire — lost a third of its 7.2 million annual passengers between 2007 and 2010. It's on track to lose an additional 200,000 this year.

October 31, 2011|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • Miguel Del Valle of Moreno Valley has a smoke outside Terminal 2 at L.A./Ontario International Airport. He'd arrived for his flight to Colorado, looked at the deserted baggage claim area and asked a skycap if the place was closed. No, he was assured. "I was shocked, Del Valle said. I called my wife and told her that Ive only seen five people here.
Miguel Del Valle of Moreno Valley has a smoke outside Terminal 2 at L.A./Ontario… (Los Angeles Times, Francince…)

It's the middle of the business day and the cavernous baggage claim area in Terminal 2 at L.A./Ontario International Airport is deserted. Upstairs, the food and beverage shops are closed. At the information desk, a volunteer quietly waits for travelers who never come.

Out at the curb, Miguel Del Valle of Moreno Valley arrives for a flight to Colorado, looks at the empty terminal and asks an idle skycap if the place is closed.

"No, no, no. Come on in," the skycap assures him, reaching for his luggage.

"I was shocked," said Del Valle, the only passenger at the United Airlines ticket counter. "I called my wife and told her that I've only seen five people here."

After three decades of steady growth and earning a Forbes magazine nod as one of the nation's top "alternative airports," Ontario International is now among the fastest-declining midsize airports in the country.

A pillar of pride for the Inland Empire, which rode the housing boom to a colossal bust, the sprawling facility owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles lost a third of its 7.2 million annual passengers between 2007 and 2010.

The airport is on track to lose an additional 200,000 this year — setting it back to 1987 levels, when Ronald Reagan was president and the Dow was below 3,000. Nationally, only Cincinnati is shedding travelers at a faster pace.

The economic pounding suffered by the Inland Empire, where unemployment peaked at more than 14%, is a significant factor in the airport's decline. In addition, the highest fees in the region for air carriers, and fares that can be twice those at other Southern California airports, have driven airlines and hundreds of thousands of passengers to other portals, particularly Los Angeles International Airport.

But Inland Empire leaders suspect something more insidious is at work. Increasingly, they are convinced that Los Angeles World Airports, which operates both LAX and Ontario, has become an absentee landlord bent on a multibillion-dollar modernization of LAX at the expense of its weaker stepchild and potential competitor 56 miles to the east.

"It really smacks of economic warfare against the Inland Empire," said John Husing, an economic consultant with a local business coalition. "Los Angeles officials cannot be trusted.... They have done everything in their power to ruin this airport."

Los Angeles officials counter that Ontario is a victim of economic forces largely beyond their control and might not recover until travel demand returns to pre-recession levels.

"It's really an unhappy situation," said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports. "We have the Great Recession combined with related structural changes in the airline industry."

Inland Empire officials aren't buying it, noting that while Los Angeles County has had 12.4% to 13% unemployment, LAX has grown.

Their disenchantment has fostered an effort to regain local ownership of the airport, which Los Angeles acquired at no cost in 1985 after operating it since 1967. The idea has the backing of 20 other cities and the Southern California Assn. of Governments, an influential regional planning agency.

Under the current management, Ontario officials say, an estimated 8,000 airport-related jobs and $400 million in yearly business activity already have been lost. For travelers, Ontario was a popular discount fare portal before the economic crash. Now there are 47% fewer flights, about 60% fewer destinations, a dearth of discount carriers and often sharply higher airfares.

"Today, I can fly to Paris out of Miami for the same price as flying into Ontario," said Scott Schroeder, a West Palm Beach attorney, who regularly used the Inland Empire airport until rising ticket prices forced him to switch to LAX.

Unless there is a quick turnaround, Ontario officials say, Los Angeles will squander an aviation asset with the potential to serve 30 million passengers annually. That's partly because it is unencumbered by the court-ordered passenger caps, noise restrictions, outdated facilities and community opposition that have slowed growth at LAX and other local airports.

Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner complains that Los Angeles officials have not reduced airport staff and costs in line with the passenger drop, which he says has kept Ontario's overhead too high for airlines.

Last year, the fees that Ontario charged air carriers per passenger averaged $14.50, about seven times those charged at Burbank, more than twice those at Long Beach, 45% more than Orange County's John Wayne Airport and 31% higher than LAX.

"It's been a dog-and-pony show at Los Angeles World Airports for the past 11/2 to 2 years," Wapner said.

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