LAWA Officials Say Ontario’s Pessimism Is Harming Airport

Ontario International Airport is on the brink of failure because it lacks brand identity and because of the downturns in the national, state and local economies, according to an airline industry consultant to the division of the city of Los Angeles which operates its airports.
The city of Los Angeles has had responsibility for running Ontario Airport since 1967 and has owned it since 1985 when Ontario deeded it to the megalopolis for no consideration. Under Los Angeles’s direction, over $550 million in improvements were made to the airport and passenger traffic there increased dramatically from just under 200,000 in 1966 to 7.2 million in 2007. But over the last five years, passengers flying in and out of Ontario have dwindled considerably, with  4.2 million passengers in 2011, and further declines are expected to be registered this year.
Ontario officials blame Los Angeles, and Los Angeles World Airports, the non-profit entity L.A. created to own, maintain, administer and operate its division of airports, which includes Los Angeles International Airport, Van Nuys Airport, Palmdale Airport and Ontario International.
Ontario officials assert Los Angeles World Airports, known by its acronym LAWA, for the last five years has allowed Ontario International Airport to languish, as major improvements have been made to Los Angeles International Airport, where passenger traffic has increased despite the contraction of the airline industry.  Simultaneously, LAWA charges the airlines at Ontario International $14.50 per enplaned passenger, which is substantially more than the $11, $9.93, $5.34, $4.07 and $2.10 charged at Los Angeles International, John Wayne, Long Beach, Palm Springs and Burbank airports, respectively. Indeed, Ontario officials maintain, LAWA is purposefully mismanaging Ontario International as part of an effort to bolster the Los Angeles Economy.
Ontario has embarked on an effort to have Los Angeles relinquish ownership and control of Ontario Airport either back to Ontario or a regional entity. As part of that effort, Ontario has sought, so far unsuccessfully, legislation mandating the airport’s return, and undertaken a public relations campaign, now dubbed “Set ONTario Free,” which castigates Los Angeles and LAWA by celebrating the airport’s alleged mismanagement, emphasizes how the drop in airport use has damaged the local economy and touts local control as a panacea. Ontario has induced more than 70 cities, organizations and elected officials to endorse the concept of Los Angeles returning the airport to Ontario.
LAWA and Los Angeles, which speak from the experience of running the airport, see things differently. They maintain that the drop off in passenger traffic is in some measure a function of the downturn in the economy, local and national, the decline of the airline industry in general, and changes in the way airlines are operating. Additionally, LAWA faults Ontario and its persistent critical and negative comments about the airport and how it is run, as is typified in its public relations campaign, as contributing to the reluctance of passengers to fly out of Ontario.
Edward Shelswell-White, an airline industry expert and consultant to LAWA who was brougt in to look at the reasons Ontario Airport is sputtering and suggest the means by which the beleaguered aerodrome  could be turned around, cited the “negative dialogue” about the airport emanating from Ontario itself as a contributory factor in the perception of Ontario Airport as a destination or place of departure to be avoided. Shelswell-White noted that it is Ontario officials and not Los Angeles ones who are hinting about closing the airport.
Shelswell-White and other Los Angeles World Airport officials such as LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey, director of external affairs Celine Cordero and director for air service marketing Mark Thorpe have all indicated that running an entity like Ontario Airport is an extremely complicated matter which Ontario officials ignore in making their highly critical assessments and statements. Lindsey said that merely transferring control of the airport to Ontario will not transform it into a successful and impeccably run aerodrome.
Shelswell-White offered his view that the airport is not capturing the imagination or confidence of its “target customers.” He said Ontario needs to strengthen its “brand identity” and contemplate a “rebranding.” To this end, LAWA offered to let Ontario take on the marketing of Ontario Airport and said it would provide money out of its own budget to help Ontario do that. Ontario officials rejected the offer, maintaining they did not want to market a product, i.e., airline tickets, when they had no control over ticket pricing.
Ontario’s rejection of the offer dismayed LAWA officials, who reference Ontario’s willingness to spend $635,000 in a negative public relations campaign attacking the city of Los Angeles and LAWA with regard to the airport ownership issue but simultaneously evincing unwillingness to run a positive marketing program for the airport. They see Ontario’s inability to take up the marketing campaign as an indication of its larger inability to run an airport.
While LAWA officials believe an improvement in the economy is the only likely cure for the situation dogging Ontario Airport, Ontario officials are hopeful that a currently ongoing study by the Los Angeles City Council subcommittee on trade and the city’s administrative officer, Miguel Santana, looking into Ontario’s proposal to regain control of the airport and a fair market price for Ontario Airport will advance their cause.

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