By Mark Gutglueck
Los Angeles World Airports Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey, who over the last three years has been demonized by Ontario city officials for her organization’s stewardship of Ontario International Airport, on Tuesday announced her retirement.
After a 39-year career, 33 working in the aviation industry, Lindsey told her staff “It is time for me to move on to other adventures.”
Prior to tendering her resignation, Lindsey discussed the advisability and timing of her retirement with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners President Sean Burton.
“This is an appropriate time for a transition,” said Lindsey. “The next LAWA executive director will be able to take the Airports Development Program through its next major phase, its next round of projects that will last at least 10 years.”
In publicly announcing her departure, Lindsey said she will stay on into the spring to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership for Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the corporate entity which manages the airports owned by the city of Los Angeles for its Department of Airports.
Lindsey’s departure comes at a critical juncture in the relationship between the city of Los Angeles and the city of Ontario, which have developed major differences over the current and future management and ownership of Ontario International Airport.
LAWA is charged with operating Los Angeles International Airport, Van Nuys Airport, and Ontario International Airport, the later of which has been under the control of Los Angeles for more than 47 years. In 1967, when Ontario Airport yet had a gravel parking lot and fewer than 200,000 passengers passing through its gates annually, the Ontario City Council ratified a joint operating agreement with the city of Los Angeles to permit the larger city to use its stronger negotiating position with the airlines serving Southern California to induce them to utilize the Ontario facility. Using the leverage it possessed by virtue of its control of gate positions at Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles persuaded a whole host of airlines to begin flying into and out of Ontario, transforming the former backwater air field into a world class aerodrome, eliminating one of its obsolete runways, improving its existing east-west runway and constructing another, and constructing an ultra-modern concourse and two new terminals. After all of the performance criteria in the original joint operating agreement were achieved, in 1985 the city of Ontario deeded the airport to the city of Los Angeles for no consideration. During the more than two-decades after that transition, the airport continued to prosper, with ridership rising to an all-time record 7.2 million in 2007.
That same year, on June 4, 2007, Lindsey, who had decades of experience in airport management and a record of success in renovating and improving international airports, including with Seattle-Tacoma Airport, was appointed LAWA executive director.
Lindsey’s arrival coincided with two sets of events that ultimately fueled the souring of relations between the cities of Los Angeles and Ontario with regard to Ontario International Airport. The first of these was Lindsey’s push to step up the modernization of Los Angeles International Airport, which would ultimately lead, at least in part, to soaring passenger numbers there. The second event was the massive economic downturn that transitioned into a lingering national, statewide and regional recession that perpetuated itself for nearly seven years. Airlines, in an effort to shield themselves from the continuing economic decline, began cutting back on flights, particularly to locations outside heavy population centers. Beginning in 2008 and until mid-2014, passenger traffic at Ontario International declined steadily. This led to a deterioration in the working relationship between Los Angeles and Ontario. In 2010, Ontario officials, led by city councilman Alan Wapner, initiated a campaign aimed at wresting control and ownership of Ontario International Airport back from Los Angeles. Los Angeles officials, including most prominently Lindsey, at first ignored and then began to resist that effort, which grew increasingly strident and uncivil. Ontario officials, with Wapner in the lead, began to openly charge that Lindsey had evinced hostility toward the city of Ontario and its airport, and was deliberately managing Ontario International operations to raise costs and minimize both revenues and ridership there as part of a plot to increase revenue and gate numbers at Los Angeles International Airport. Lindsey and her staff denied those accusations, pointing out that the airlines were being pushed by their own economic imperatives. But in 2013, in the waning days of Anthony Villaraigosa’s tenure as Los Angeles mayor, the city of Ontario, through the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, sued Los Angeles in the neutral forum of Riverside Superior Court, charging Los Angeles and LAWA with willful mismanagement of Ontario Airport and seeking the return of the aerodrome to the city in which it is located.
The city of Los Angeles turned back a major portion of that legal challenge last month when Riverside Superior Court Judge Gloria Connor Trask ruled against Ontario’s claims that the 47-year-old joint operating agreement and the 29-year-old title transfers were illegally ratified and therefore unenforceable and voidable. Along the way, however, Ontario’s lawyers have pushed for the discovery of internal LAWA documents and staff communications, and has trumpeted selected examples culled from these in the press to demonstrate what Ontario officials, again led by Wapner front and center, said was LAWA’s and in particular Lindsey’s pernicious attitude toward Ontario.
The personalization of the attacks have occurred against a backdrop of jockeying between the two cities over the “value” of the airport, i.e., the amount of money that will change hands if the airport title is to be handed back to Ontario. Wapner long insisted that the airport was a “public benefit asset” and had no “value” as such. He called for Los Angeles to simply deed the airport back at no consideration. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has claimed that over $500 million dollars has been expended on improvements at the facility and that major portions of the funds for those improvements originated from revenue generated at Los Angeles International Airport or at Ontario International Airport while it has been in the possession of Los Angeles, as well as from federal grants Los Angeles secured or from bonds issued under the authority of Los Angeles as a public agency.
Ontario privately tendered a $250 million offer to Los Angeles World Airports for transfer of the airport’s title and operational control. That offer included Ontario assuming $75 million of the outstanding bond debt obligations for past improvements to the airport, $125 million in future passenger facility charges to be realized at the airport and $50 million cash.
Los Angeles scoffed at that offer, giving indication they would accept no less than $450 million for the airport and the property on which it sits, which in any case they considered to be a generously charitable counterproposal reflecting a roughly $100 million discount of the cost of the improvements made to the airport during Los Angeles’s 47 year managerial run there.
Ontario has fought back, suggesting both in court documents and in public statements that Los Angeles has cooked the books and grossly overstated – by hundreds of millions of dollars – the actual amount of money Los Angeles has contributed toward improvements at Ontario Airport.
For their part, Los Angeles officials at all levels, from the city council through to the management ranks at LAWA have been offended by the vitriol and tenor of Ontario’s campaign. It is unclear whether Lindsey’s departure came at her own initiative or was imposed upon her by the political leadership on the Los Angeles City Council and the airport board. The timing of her leaving in the wake of the city of Los Angeles’s substantial victory over Ontario in court by virtue of Judge Trask’s recent ruling is widely seen as a gesture of magnanimity by the larger city, and an effort toward reconciliation that calls for a similarly statesmanlike move on Ontario’s part. At this point, it appears the ball is in Ontario’s court, and it is an open question whether Ontario will seek some level of accommodation or maintain or step up its aggressive and bellicose tactics. What has been suggested is that Ontario could reciprocate by removing Wapner, whose inflexibility, aggressive personality and confrontational approach in his engagement with Los Angeles officials has consistently resulted in an elevation of tension and a hardening of positions that have locked the city into a showdown posture of dubious prospect that involves a legal throw of the dice which will entail, if played out to its conclusion, millions of dollars in legal fees whether Ontario ultimately wins or loses.
An incremental move in the direction of accommodation appears to be afoot in that the Ontario International Airport Authority, the entity that was created by the city of Ontario and the county of San Bernardino to assume management control of the airport upon its return to local ownership, has designated recently installed Fourth District County Supervisor Curt Hagman, whose district includes Ontario, as a second negotiator to complement Wapner in dealing with Los Angeles and LAWA officials.
“I hope this impending personnel change clears the way for the cities of Ontario and LA to reach agreement on the transfer of Ontario International Airport to local control on terms that are consistent with all previous transfers of commercial airports between public agencies. We stand ready to work with Mayor Garcetti to determine a fair payment for the transfer of Ontario International Airport that makes LAWA whole with respect to any unreimbursed investments it has made in ONT.”
Whether or not her departure will encourage Ontario to reevaluate its approach with regard to the airport, Lindsey will remain in place at LAWA for the next two to four months as Mayor Garcetti’s office and airport commissioners coordinate with Spencer Stuart, a leading executive search consulting firm, to identify Lindsey’s successor. After her replacement is brought in, it is anticipated Lindsey will remain with LAWA for a long enough interval to bring the new executive director up to speed.
Sean Burton, the president of the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners, said of Lindsey, “A good leader brings out the best in a team. Gina Marie has put together a strong and efficient team that is transforming Los Angeles International Airport into an airport the city can be proud of, responsibly managed costs and operations at Ontario International Airport through difficult market changes, and moved Van Nuys, a general aviation airport that had been losing money, into a brighter future. I am proud to have been able to work with her.” In a memo to LAWA staff, Lindsey summarized their achievements. Two of those touched on Ontario Airport directly.
“We’ve gradually reduced Ontario International Airport operating costs to maintain a relatively consistent cost per passenger despite significant passenger reductions,” Lindsey noted in one section of the memo, the context of which implied Ontario International’s expenses and operating costs are exceeding revenues.
Lindsey’s memo also stated, “There’s now an established, systematic process for determining capital investment priorities at each airport.”
Ontario Mayor Paul Leon said that “I wish Ann Marie all the best. I can say that she was dedicated and loyal and did a fine job for the ones who employed her. I hope she finds fulfillment as she moves on to the next season of her life.”
By Mark Gutglueck