Further Escalation In Ontario’s Battle With Los Angeles Over Airport

(May 10) Ontario ratcheted the level of vituperation with the city of Los Angeles over Ontario Airport up a notch, joining with the cities of Inglewood and Culver City in their challenge of and environmental plan for Los Angeles International Airport.
Ontario was accompanied in that challenge by the county of San Bernardino, its partner in the Ontario International Airport Authority, in a letter filed on Tuesday, May 7.
In response, Los Angeles World Airports, the municipal corporation that runs Los Angeles International Airport, Ontario International Airport, Van Nuys Airport and Burbank Airport for the city of Los Angeles, withdrew a proposal that had been approved by the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners the same day to provide incentives to airlines to increase their flights into and out of Ontario International.
In 1967, Ontario entered into a joint powers agreement with Los Angeles to have that city’s department of airports manage Ontario Airport. Under Los Angeles’ control, Ontario Airport grew exponentially, increasing its per year flights from under 200,000 to 7.2 million by 2007. In 1985, after Los Angeles met the criteria outlined in the 1967 agreement related to capital improvements and expansion of the airport, Ontario deeded the airport to the city of Los Angeles. Since 2007, however, passenger traffic at Ontario Airport has decreased to 4.2 million per year, even as Los Angeles World Airports has undertaken an energetic improvement plan at Los Angeles International Airport, where ridership has increased.
Ontario officials have charged that Los Angeles and Los Angeles World Airport officials are purposefully slighting Ontario Airport in a deliberate effort to boost Los Angeles International Airport. They have undertaken an aggressive campaign to force Los Angeles to redeed the airport back to Ontario, publicly insisting that the larger city should do so at no consideration because the airport is considered a public benefit property which has no sale value. Privately, however, Ontario has offered Los Angeles $250 million for the airport as Los Angeles has sought potential private and public buyers for the aerodrome at prices ranging from $225 million to $650 million. Ontario considered Los Angeles’s revelation of its private $250 million offer to be an affront and has since formed with the county of San Bernardino the Ontario International Airport Authority, an entity intended to take over ownership and operation of the airport once Los Angeles relinquishes it.
Last month Ontario, through the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Sheppard Mullen Richter & Hampton, filed an administrative claim, considered to be the precursor of a lawsuit, against the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles World Airports, charging them with chronic mismanagement of the airport.
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council approved a $4.8 billion modernization plan for the airport that has long been opposed by activists and the cities of Westchester, Culver City and Inglewood. Ontario and San Bernardino County  took that as their cue to jump in on the side of Culver City and Inglewood, who had already launched a legal challenge over environmental issues related to that modernization.
While Ontario and San Bernardino County officials have little or no actual interest in the environmental issues outlined in the challenge, they maintain the Los Angeles International Airport modernization program can further erode passenger traffic levels at Ontario International Airport.
In a letter dated May 7 from the Irvine-based law firm of Buchalter Nehmer, representing Ontario, Culver City, Inglewood and the county of San Bernardino, it is stated that they collectively “hereby request that Los Angeles World Airports (‘LAWA’) agree to mediation pursuant to Public Resources Code Section 21167.10 as to the above-referenced city council approval.”
Under the law, Los Angeles has five days to agree to or deny the request for mediation. Upon denial, the four entities have 30 days to file a lawsuit. Mediation and a lawsuit, presumably, would be aimed at preventing the airport modernization from taking place.
On the same day, the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners had voted to move forward with three programs intended to bring more flights into Ontario Airport. Tacit to that approval was LAWA’s willingness to fund the programs.
One of those was an incentive program offering rent-free space to  carriers for a specified period, conditional upon increasing the frequency of flights to or from existing destinations or adding new destinations. The commissioners also agreed to transfer excess and often idle employees at Ontario to Los Angeles, a move which will reduce operational costs at Ontario, thereby lowering enplaned passenger fees to the airlines, which could encourage carriers to fly out of Ontario more often.
Shortly after the meeting, however, LAWA officials learned of Ontario’s ploy in joining with the county of San Bernardino to back Culver City and Inglewood in their challenge of the Los Angeles International modernization plan. Almost immediately, LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey and Ontario airport manager Jess Romo countermanded the cooperative elements of the Ontario Airport flight expansion effort approved by the commissioners earlier, such that the estimated $1.5 million needed to offer the airlines the flight incentive packages involving free space will have to be funded by Ontario.
Ontario officials were unperturbed by that development, insisting that the measures the commissioners had approved were mere window dressing that would have no significant impact in increasing passenger traffic at the airport. They suggested that LAWA’s move would simply result in the airlines having to absorb custodial costs that heretofore were not part of their cost formula and that any savings the airlines realized from lower enplaned passenger fees would be erased by housekeeping duties the carriers would have to take on.
Moreover, Ontario officials are looking past the current make-up of LAWA management and the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners, most of whom they believe will be replaced in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Municipal elections next week. Ontario officials believe they can broker a deal for the return of the airport with the new Los Angeles municipal administration, regardless of whether it is headed by Wendy Gruel or Eric Garcetti, who are vying against each other for Los Angeles mayor.

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