SAN BERNARDINO–In a development involving what was, depending on your perspective, perfect or disastrous timing, San Bernardino has made a bid to transform its dormant aerodrome into the county’s second true international airport.
San Bernardino International Airport officials have begun serious discussions with Mexican consular officials and have effectuated indirect contact with seven Mexican airlines or their corporate affiliates with regard to establishing regular flights between 29 Mexican destinations and the county seat.
San Bernardino International Airport is international in name only. In the strictest sense, it is, at present and much to the chagrin of city and county officials, an airport virtually in name only, as well.
San Bernardino International Airport is located on the grounds of what was formerly Norton Air Force Base, which was originally constructed as the U.S. Army Air Corps San Bernardino Air Depot in 1942. The Department of Defense decommissioned Norton in 1994. Subsequently,
two joint powers authorities relating to the former airbase, SBIAA and IVDA, were created involving San Bernardino County and the cities of Colton, Grand Terrace, Highland, Loma Linda, Redlands and San Bernardino. SBIAA, an acronym for the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, was devoted to the civilian conversion of the airport property into a public airport. IVDA, an acronym for the Inland Valley Development Authority, was intended to oversee the development of the property around the former air base. In time, Redlands and Grand Terrace would opt out of both joint powers authorities and Highland would leave IVDA while remaining a participant in SBIAA.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the San Bernardino International Airport Authority undertook what appeared to be an earnest effort to transform the airbase into a fully functional airport, while encountering a number of practical obstructions to that agenda. Nevertheless, the SBIAA board, consisting of a single representative from the cities of Loma Linda. Highland, Colton and the county and two representatives from the City of San Bernardino, seriously committed to that goal and in 2007 undertook what was initially slated to be a $38 million renovation of the airport’s passenger terminal and a $7 million development of its concourse.
SBIAA hired Scot Spencer, an aircraft industry executive with a checkered track record, to serve as the airport’s developer. Under Spencer’s direction, the terminal/concourse project progressed and expanded, and the total cost of those renovations/transformations rose to $142 million. The scope of this effort was justified on the assumption that the airport would be able to attract as many as a half dozen commercial passenger carriers.
Though the final product of that undertaking – the concourse and the terminal project – proved indeed impressive, Spencer involved himself in a number of enterprises at the airport, including San Bernardino Airport Management, SBD Properties LLC, KCP Leasing and Services, SBD Aircraft Services, Norton Aviation Maintenance Services and Unique Aviation, all of which were companies he owned or controlled, which undercut the effectiveness of his development of the airport and the fledgling civilian operations there. On more than one occasion Spencer used his status as the airport developer and his access to the authority’s administration and board to personally profit to the detriment of the airport’s operations and the taxpayers who were underwriting them. Ultimately, in 2013, Spencer was charged with engaging in a conspiracy to steal $1.75 million in public funds, a gambit which ultimately, prosecutors said, netted him $1.03 million.
The closest the airport ever came to having significant air carrier operations consisted of the Million Air operation established there, for which Spencer was the franchisee, beginning in 2010. Million Air operates fixed-base operators throughout the United States. As a fixed base operator, Million Air provides fueling services, aircraft charter, aircraft sales, aircraft management, and general aviation maintenance services. At San Bernardino International, Million Air essentially provided landing and take-off services for operators of private and corporate jets. Virtually the only use of the terminal at San Bernardino International was made by Million Air’s customers.
Ultimately, however, Spencer’s relationship with Million Air Interlink, the Texas-based parent company of Million Air, soured. Spencer through one of his own companies, SBD Properties, operated the airport’s fuel farm, consisting of tanks from which the private jets that fly out of San Bernardino International Airport were fueled. Under the San Bernardino International Airport Authority’s contract with SBD, a minimum of 20,000 gallons of aviation fuel were to be maintained in the fueling system at all times. But Spencer and SBD had allowed fuel in the tanks, which have a capacity of 150,000 gallons, to dwindle to 1,100 gallons on occasion. This interfered with Million Air’s operations into and out of San Bernardino, and the company, which by 2012 had already sued Spencer for $837,290 in long-past-due franchise fees, revoked Spencer’s franchise in 2013, prior to Spencer being indicted. Since Million Air’s departure from San Bernardino in 2013, the airport, its concourse and its state-of-the-art terminal have gone unused.
This week five consuls representing Mexican nationals residing in San Bernardino County and other parts of Southern California came to San Bernardino International Airport to take up the prospect of scheduling regular flights between San Bernardino International and various Mexican airports.
At this point the contemplated flights are still speculative, and there are no commitments with regard to either airlines or destinations.
Leading the discussion was Carlos Garcia de Alba, the consul general of Los Angeles and former Mexican ambassador to Ireland. Joining him were consular officials from San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Oxnard and Fresno. The San Diego consulate was not represented in the discussions. Taking part was Mark Gibbs, San Bernardino International Airport’s director of aviation,
At issue was the burgeoning travel market between the United States and Mexico in general and Mexico and Southern California in particular.
While no airline officials were present during the discussions, the Sentinel has learned that the arilines mentioned as potential users at San Bernardino International included Aeromar, Viva Aerobus, Aeroméxico, Aeroméxico Connect, Interjet and Volaris.
The Mexican airports that would potentially be involved in direct connections to San Bernardino International Airport, either as destinations or points of origin are Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco; Mar de Cortés International Airport, also known as Puerto Peñasco International Airport in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora; Piedras Negras International Airport in Piedras Negras, Coahuila; Quetzalcóatl International Airport in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas; Nogales International Airport in Nogales Sonora; Del Norte International Airport in General Escobedo, Nuevo León, near Monterrey; Venustiano Carranza International Airport in Monclova Coahuila; Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez, known as Mexico City International Airport in Mexico City; General Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada International Airport outside Mexicali, Baja California; General Rafael Buelna International Airport, also known as Mazatlán International Airport, in Mazatlán, Sinaloa; General Servando Canales International Airport in Matamoros, Tamaulipas; Valle del Fuerte Federal International Airport, known as Los Mochis International Airport near Los Mochis, Sinaloa; Los Cabos International Airport, the sixth-busiest airport in Mexico, located at San José del Cabo in Los Cabos Municipality, Baja California Sur; Loreto International Airport, in Loreto Municipality of Baja California Sur; Del Bajío International Airport, officially known as Aeropuerto Internacional de Guanajuato in Silao, Guanajuato; Acapulco International Airport, also called General Juan N. Álvarez International Airport, the main airport of Acapulco, Guerrero; Cabo San Lucas International Airport, located northwest of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California Sur, Mexico; Ciudad Acuña International Airport, near Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila; Abraham González International Airport, in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; Ciudad Obregón International Airport, in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora; Francisco Sarabia International Airport in Torreón, Coahuila; General Abelardo L. Rodríguez International Airport, otherwise known as Tijuana International Airport in Baja California; San Felipe International Airport in San Felipe, Baja California; General Lucio Blanco International Airport in Reynosa, Tamaulipas; Querétaro Intercontinental Airport in Querétaro; Culiacán International Airport near Culiacán, Sinaloa; Guadalupe Victoria Durango International Airport or Durango International Airport, northeast of Durango; and Guadalajara International Airport, known as Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla Guadalajara International Airport, the main airport of Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara, in Jalisco.
The discussion came at an inauspicious time for the City of Ontario, that city’s officials, Ontario International Airport and the director of Ontario International, Airport Kelly Fredericks, and the Ontario International Airport Authority Board.
On Tuesday, November 1, Ontario/the Ontario International Airport Authority is set to take on ownership and management of Ontario International Airport. Ontario relinquished ownership of the airport to the City of Los Angeles in 1985. Eighteen years before that, in 1967, as part of a joint operating authority agreement, Ontario turned management and operation of the airport over to Los Angeles. Under Los Angeles’ guidance, ridership at Ontario Airport grew exponentially, from fewer than 200,000 passengers in 1967 to 7.2 million in 2007. But passenger traffic at the airport dropped off sharply in the years after that, as the lingering economic recession and contractions in the airline industry resulted in flight reductions into and out of Ontario. At the prompting of Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner, Ontario initiated a campaign to take back both ownership and operational authority at the airport from Los Angeles. That increasingly acrimonious confrontation escalated, with the City of Ontario filing a lawsuit against the megalopolis to the west over the matter in 2013. Prior to the case going to trial last year, an agreement to have the aerodrome returned to Ontario was made, involving Ontario forking over to Los Angeles $150 million for the airport itself, $60 million to purchase assets technically belonging to Los Angeles World Airports that are in place at Ontario Airport and which are crucial or indispensable to its operations and Ontario taking on bonded indebtedness of roughly $60 million related to the financing for the provision of airport infrastructure that has become Ontario’s responsibility to service.
Despite the confident predictions of Wapner and other Ontario officials to the effect that Ontario would be able to reinvigorate the airport and reestablish the dynamic passenger numbers of a decade ago, Ontario officials have been met with the sobering realization that the rhetoric bordering on propaganda they propounded during the campaign to wrest control of the airport back from Los Angeles was without basis and that Los Angelses, as one of the world’s primary cities running one of the world’s largest airports, Los Angeles International, had leverage with airlines Ontario simply does not possess. While they are loathe to acknowledge so publicly, Ontario officials realize in a very tangible way that under their management, operations at Ontario International Airport, for the foreseeable future, are as likely to contract further than to expand.
At present, Ontario International Airport has two airline carriers offering flights to Guadalajara, Volaris and AeroMexico. The addition of those flights came in 2014, while the airport was being managed by Los Angeles World Airports, the corporate arm of the Los Angeles Department of Airports.
The powwow of Mexican consular officials at San Bernardino International Airport with Mark Gibbs, San Bernardino International Airport’s director of aviation, carrying with it the possibility San Bernardino will offer an alternate destination for flights from Mexico to the Inland Empire that will directly interfere with Ontario’s hopes for the expansion of its aviation facility, was unsettling to Ontario and its officials. Those officials at once began looking at their options. One of those was to see if Greg Devereaux, the chief executive officer of San Bernardino County, might intercede with SBIAA officials. Devereaux is a board member on the Ontario International Airport Authority, which also counts Ontario councilmen Wapner and Jim Bowman as members. Before he was county CEO, Devereaux was Ontario city manager.
Unfortunately for Ontario, it cannot rely on Los Angles at this point to go to bat for Ontario International Airport in its competition with San Bernardino International Airport to attract Mexican airlines. Ontario’s vituperation toward Los Angeles and its officials during the tussle over Ontario Airport has not left Los Angeles officials favorably inclined to doing any favors for Ontario, particularly with regard to the airport.
Ontario Mayor Paul Leon said he was not particularly concerned that San Bernardino International will shift Mexican airlines away from Ontario.
“I don’t know how likely they are to achieve success in getting any of the Mexican airlines to agree to use that facility,” Leon said.
Leon said neither he nor Ontario’s other officials feel threatened by the dialogue that began between San Bernardino International Airport representatives and the Mexican consuls, saying he encouraged discussion with regard to strengthening air transportation options from Mexico into Southern California generally. Leon said he did not believe San Bernardino International was in any sort of position to eat into Ontario International’s passenger traffic.
“I do not believe the conversation will hurt anybody,” Leon said. “Until there are connecting flights out of San Bernardino, San Bernardino is a dead end destination. Where do you go from there? You have to take a bus or a taxi or get picked up by a friend. That is the thing that is important, the ability to catch connecting flights. Our airport has a head start with connecting flights. We are not starting from scratch. With the City of Ontario now getting control of the airport, we have control of the airport’s destiny and Ontario is not now nor will it be a dead end destination. People may fly into San Bernardino, but that doesn’t accomplish much other than getting from point a to point b. For many people, especially in the business world, there is a need to move on to points c, d, e and f. Once Ontario gets control of the airport, we will quickly upgrade so many things and we will enter into business agreements with so many entities, airlines and businesses, so that we will be able to lower rates and attract more and more passengers.”
Leon said San Bernardino is covering ground Ontario covered long ago.
“I welcome San Bernardino Internationas’s efforts,” he said. “If they are, in fact, able to attract airlines and get them to consider San Bernardino as a destination, those airlines will at some point have to look at Ontario as a better place to be. That’s just the way it goes. When I went to China and spoke to the Chinese airline executives, they indicated they wanted to come to Ontario because we are so close to Disneyland, the hot springs, the desert, the mountains. But they said they were concerned about their passengers once they got here and where they could fly to from here. That being said, the point is what went on in San Bernardino this week is a nice conversation to have but in the final analysis, that conversation is going to have to turn on and be about where the passengers will go after they arrive in San Bernardino. I say that if San Bernardino can get this started, all the more power to them. Our interests intersect and we congratulate one another whenever someting good happens, becauase it is good for the entire region. Ultimately, I think a conversation about building up San Bernardino International Airport is fine and dandy, but for the businessminded folks, which is where all the money is, the key question they will be asking is where do they want to go after they arrive and how are they going to get there.”