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Report warns of steep traffic decline at Ontario airport

A study finds that with traffic at Ontario airport plummeting, it could reach a point where recovery could be impossible.

August 05, 2013|By Dan Weikel
  • L.A./Ontario International Airport was once one of the fastest-growing airports in the nation. Traffic dropped 40% from 2007 to 2012, and more declines are expected.
L.A./Ontario International Airport was once one of the fastest-growing… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

A persistent decline in passengers at L.A./Ontario International Airport has become so severe that the once-popular facility could reach a point where recovery would be almost impossible, Inland Empire officials warned Monday in a new report.

Touted by Forbes magazine several years ago as one of the best alternative metropolitan airports in the nation, Ontario lost almost 40% of its 7.2 million annual passengers from 2007 to 2012. A further 8% decline is expected this year, which would bring the volume of travelers to just under 4 million, the lowest in a generation.

If the trend continues, the number of annual passengers could fall below 2 million as early as 2020, say Inland Empire officials who are seeking to gain control of Ontario from Los Angeles. Such a decline would make the airport increasingly unattractive for airlines, reduce service for travelers and cost the region tens of millions of dollars in economic activity, the report says.

"Ontario's prospects of making a full recovery from a serious decline in passengers are daunting," it warns, "and the longer Ontario waits until game-changing solutions are implemented, the weaker Ontario's position will be at that time."

The grim predictions were prepared by Oliver Wyman, an international management consulting firm.

The company prepared the report for the Ontario International Airport Authority, a body made up of Inland Empire officials that was formed in anticipation of taking control of the facility from Los Angeles World Airports, which also operates Los Angeles International Airport.

The report should serve as "a wake-up call" to the administration of new L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, said Alan D. Wapner, the airport authority's president and an Ontario city councilman. "Time is running short to place the airport in the hands of the regional authority that has a vested interest in the airport making the greatest contribution to the region."

Although the worst recession since World War II forced airlines to relocate service to larger airports such as LAX, Inland Empire officials assert that Los Angeles shares the blame for Ontario's dramatic decline.

Advertising and marketing budgets for Ontario airport have been slashed, they say, and Los Angeles officials have not moved fast enough to reduce airport costs for airlines, which remain the highest in Southern California for airports of similar size.

In addition, Inland Empire officials say that although Los Angeles has invested billions in modernizing LAX , it has spent little to turn Ontario around.

The report contends that as the exodus of passengers continues, costs for airlines to operate at the airport could rise, increasing pressure to trim more service.

Los Angeles airport officials blame the recession for Ontario's problems, saying the downturn triggered a restructuring in the airline industry and prompted airlines to move service to larger airports with better markets.

They also say they have lowered costs at Ontario in recent years and tried unsuccessfully to persuade airlines to sustain service at the airport. A few months ago, they offered to subsidize airline advertising campaigns at the airport. As of the end of July, there were no takers, officials say.

The Oliver Wyman report found that Ontario's passenger decrease was more than double other airports in the Los Angeles area. And, despite a recovering economy in the Inland Empire, it continues to lose passengers at a time when almost all the region's airports are growing. Many Ontario passengers have shifted to LAX, which has seen some of the greatest growth.

To reverse the situation, the report says millions of dollars will need to be spent at Ontario for marketing and incentives to encourage airlines to restore service. "Without such intervention," researchers say, "Ontario is likely to continue to struggle" to remain competitive.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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