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Inland Empire officials sue to regain LA/Ontario airport

Lawsuit seeks return of ownership to Ontario and cancellation of a 1967 agreement that transferred the airport's operation to Los Angeles.

June 03, 2013|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • Travelers walk toward the escalators leading to the security check-in point at LA/Ontario International Airport, which has seen a 40% drop in passengers since 2007.
Travelers walk toward the escalators leading to the security check-in… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Alleging mismanagement, conflicts of interest and violations of a key agreement, Inland Empire officials Monday sued the city of Los Angeles in their effort to regain ownership of LA/Ontario International Airport, where the number of passengers has declined 40% since 2007.

The lawsuit seeks a return of the struggling airport to the city of Ontario and cancellation of a 1967 agreement that transferred the facility's operation to Los Angeles on the condition that it do its best to attract airline service.

That action is the latest development in a three-year effort by Ontario and officials from other Inland Empire governments to wrest control of the airport from Los Angeles.

Ontario lodged the 25-page complaint in Riverside County Superior Court. In addition to Los Angeles, defendants in the suit include the city's Board of Airport Commissioners and Los Angeles World Airports, which operates Los Angeles International Airport, Ontario International and Van Nuys Airport.

"Anyone following Southern California airport conditions over the past five years can only conclude that as long as Ontario International's fate lies within Los Angeles' control, the airport's condition will continue to deteriorate to the detriment of the entire region," Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner said.

The airport's passenger volume plummeted to 4.2 million last year from 7.2 million in 2007. The latest projections indicate that the level could fall below 4 million in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of travelers at other commercial airports in the region has been increasing.

Los Angeles officials assert that the worst recession since World War II has prompted air carriers to reduce service and relocate flights to well-established markets at larger airports, such as LAX. Efforts to cut costs and lure airlines back to Ontario, they say, have been unsuccessful.

Almost 20 years after becoming the operator of Ontario International, Los Angeles assumed ownership of the airport. However, the 1967 agreement that requires it to develop the facility has remained in effect.

The lawsuit alleges that Ontario International "is at a crisis point" because Los Angeles has strongly emphasized the development of LAX and not lived up to its legal obligations to act in the Ontario airport's best interest.

It is alleged that Los Angeles World Airports has failed to lower Ontario International's high cost for airlines and has slashed the airport's marketing budget at least 90% since 2007. According to the lawsuit, Los Angeles now spends more to market Van Nuys, a general aviation airport.

Ontario officials also allege that L.A.'s airport department has not adequately tried to spread the growth of air traffic at LAX to other airports in the region, such as Ontario.

Nor, the lawsuit alleges, has it honored a promise by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to pass on to Ontario $7.3 million a year — the annual savings from closing LA/Palmdale Regional Airport in 2009.

In April, the city of Ontario filed a claim for damages — the first step toward bringing a lawsuit — a day after rejecting Los Angeles World Airports' offer to sell the once-popular aviation facility for almost $475 million.

Transfer negotiations had been underway for several months before they collapsed. Los Angeles rejected Ontario's claim in May.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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