Husing Assertions Challenged

(October 5)  The recent Congressional testimony provided by a San Bernardino County-based economist which laid the blame for declining passenger traffic at Ontario International Airport at the feet of the city of Los Angeles and the division it uses to run four airports that city owns came under severe criticism this week.
On September 27 at Ontario City Hall during a specially-convened session of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, John Husing said the outfit managing Ontario Airport  –  Los Angeles World Airports  –  is responsible for a 41 percent drop in passengers flying into and out of the aerodrome since 2007.
Husing said the severe economic downturn that has gripped the nation, the state and the region since 2007 does not account for that decline.
The hearing was called to vector attention on the future of the airport, which is classified by the Federal Aviation Agency as a medium hub facility. For nearly two years, Ontario city officials have been undertaking an intensive effort to convince Los Angeles to return ownership of the airport to Ontario.
Los Angeles took over management of Ontario Airport in 1967 as part of a strategy to increase flights out of the airfield. That ploy worked, as Los Angeles was able to use its control of gate positions and other considerations at Los Angeles International Airport to induce airlines to fly into and out of Ontario. Just under 200,000 passengers enplaned at Ontario Airport in 1966. Under Los Angeles’s management, over $550 million in improvements were made to the facility. In 1985, Ontario deeded the airport to Los Angeles for no consideration. In 2007, usage of the airport peaked, with 7.2 million passengers moving through the airport’s gates.
Since that time, passenger traffic through Ontario International has dropped dramatically, with 4.2 million passengers using the airport in 2011, and further declines registering this year.
Ontario city officials have repeatedly asserted that Los Angeles World Airports is purposefully mismanaging Ontario Airport’s operations to increase passenger traffic at Los Angeles International Airport, which has undergone significant renovations in recent years.
Los Angeles World Airport officials reject those claims, maintaining that the drop in passenger traffic through Ontario is a function of the sputtering economy and the doldrums in the airline industry generally.
But at the hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, led by Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wisconsin and including senior member  Rep. Gary Miller, R-Brea, Husing repeatedly asserted that Ontario Airport was suffering under the yoke of Los Angeles’s mismanagement. He called, along with others in attendance, for a change in airport administration, asserting that transferring ownership and control of the facility to Ontario will turn operations there around.
Husing was playing to a highly partisan crowd of about 120, nearly all of whom were there to support the proposition that Los Angeles should surrender control over the airport.
Miller, who indicated he was in favor of transferring management of the airport to Ontario, was still somewhat taken aback at the hostility and vitriol evinced toward Los Angeles and the hyperbole evident in elements of the case made against the megalopolis’s administration of Ontario Airport.
At one point the congressman reminded Husing that the purpose of the hearing was not to “beat up on Los Angeles.” Miller said that he came away from discussions he had with Gina Marie Lindsey, the executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, convinced that Los Angeles officials were committed to working through challenges that beset the airport to reestablish it as a successful aviation hub.
In the aftermath of Husing’s presentation, Los Angeles and Los Angeles World Airport officials were questioning the validity of many of Husing’s conclusions and observations, most notably his maintaining that the foundering economy has not had a tremendous impact on the downturn at Ontario Airport.
In particular, it was suggested that Husing, the proprietor of Redlands-based Economics & Politics, Inc., which has contracts with several local governmental entities, was coloring his testimony to favor local sentiment and pander to local politicians.
They cited a Department of Transportation study of performance all across the aviation industry, which was authored by Calvin L. Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
According to Scovel, airlines in general are still reeling from the recession that set in more than four years ago. Airlines are scrambling to adopt new strategies and change their operational models, the report states, that include factoring in rising fuel costs, which account for 35 percent of airline operational expenses,  and raising ticket prices. Consequently, airlines have reduced flights. Los Angeles officials said the report, which covers the same 2007-to-2011 period that corresponds to Ontario’s decline, directly reflects conditions at Ontario Airport.
And, according to the report, Ontario will continue to wrestle with downward moving passenger traffic, no matter who runs the airport.
“Ultimately, the trends presented in this report suggest that the changes in the number of airlines controlling the industry, fare increases, and capacity reductions that began in 2008 are not a brief phase, but rather are signs of a greater shift in the industry that will remain for years to come,” the report states.
Ontario and San Bernardino County have formed a joint powers authority intended to oversee the transition of the airport to local control and thereafter assist in the management of operations there.
On October 1, Husing spoke with the Sentinel, defending his statements before the House panel. He said that passenger traffic at Ontario Airport has receded to the level the airport was functioning at when the city of Ontario deeded it to Los Angeles 27 years ago.
“To say the economy has shoved us back to where we were in 1985 does not hold up, particularly when you consider that the overall decline in air travel in the Southern California market is 6 percent, not 42 percent,” Husing said. “We’re at the same level of passenger traffic we had in 1985. Since 1985 the Inland Empire has added well over 2 million people and 500,000 jobs. The downward trend started with the change of management LAWA [Los Angeles World Airports] instituted five years ago. Before that, we were 8 percent of the market. We are down to 5 percent now. They say the economy caused this to happen and the data contradicts that. There is no way what has occurred in the local economy pushed us back to the 1985 level of passenger traffic. There has been a 102 percent growth in jobs despite the recession. The number of companies is up by two-thirds. What our analysis shows is that the airlines’ costs per passenger in using Ontario was by far the most of any airport in Southern California, far beyond the costs of any regional airport anywhere. The cost for the airlines at Ontario is $18 per head. Compare that to Long Beach, where the cost is $2. That is just completely out of line. LA’s numbers in terms of what people are paid at Ontario are completely out of line with local pay scales. Ontario Airport used to have a full time manager. It now has a part time manager, who is shared with another facility. There is no way you can look at what they have done with the airport and feel anything other than dismay.”
Husing continued, “If you look at Southern California, at the harbors, the transportation authorities, the Southern California and South Coast air quality management districts, all the various cities, everyone has been striving to reduce vehicle miles driven, to facilitate ease of travel and lower congestion and improve air quality. Only one agency is out of sync with that, which is LAWA. LAWA has caused a million more passengers to be travelling on the roads to get to Los Angeles International instead of flying out of Ontario. What they are doing is indefensible.”

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