An empty passenger terminal at L.A./Ontario International Airport. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
Some days, the terminals at L.A./Ontario International Airport can be as quiet as a ghost town.
The number of passengers using the airport — about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles — has dropped from 6.8 million passengers in 2007 to about 4.4 million in 2011, according to federal statistics. In January, passenger traffic dropped 7.4% compared with the same month in 2011.
Passenger numbers have also dropped, although less dramatically, at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana.
In contrast, Long Beach International Airport — about 20 miles south of L.A. — continues to grow, serving more than 3 million passengers last year, a 7% increase over 2007, with growth continuing in 2012.
What’s to blame for the differing changes in passenger numbers among small airports in the same region?
Airport experts have several theories but many point to market forces, such as soaring jet fuel prices, and the added security measures passengers face since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Many small airports primarily serve short-haul flights to destinations 300 to 400 miles away. But many passengers are now opting to drive such distances to avoid the frustratingly long airport security lines, said Roy Williams, an airport consultant and former director of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
“It’s the ‘hassle factor’ and it has impacted the short-haul routes,” he said.
In addition, the soaring price of jet fuel has forced airlines to cut service to smaller airports that generate only slim profits, said Bill Fife, former chief of planning for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates five airports including John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia.
“Airlines are much more careful,” he said. “They are looking to see which are money-making and which are money-losing routes. These are market forces taking place.”
As for L.A./Ontario International Airport, Ontario city officials have long blamed the airport’s woes on poor management by the city of Los Angeles — a charge refuted by L.A. officials.
Meanwhile, Long Beach Airport officials say they are bucking the trend by keeping the landing fees and terminal rental costs charged to airlines low, airport director Mario Rodriguez said. That makes it cheaper for airlines to fly out of Long Beach and pass the savings on to passengers, he said.
In fact, the average domestic airfare for flights out of Long Beach is $240, the second lowest price in the nation, according federal statistics for July through September 2011, the most recent data available. The average ticket from Ontario is $97 higher, statistics show.
In addition, Rodriguez said, Long Beach Airport serves many medium-distance routes, such as Salt Lake City and Seattle.
“We are not just for short-hop flights,” he said. “We have long-haul flights as well. You can get places from here.”