Union Demand Puts Wrinkle In Airport Transfer Pact

As Ontario and Los Angeles officials are working toward putting the final touches on returning Ontario Airport to local ownership and control 30 years after the megalopolis took title to the aerodrome, the unions representing the workers at the airport have now taken stock of the implication the transfer will potentially have on their constituents.
As a result, with the city of Ontario tantalizingly near to closing the transfer, airport workers are demanding a voice in structuring the terms by which the airport will be run in the future, putting a new wrinkle into the process that ultimately will require Federal Aviation Administration approval.
Forty-eight years ago, the cities of Ontario and Los Angeles in entered into a joint powers agreement in which the airport’s management and operation was entrusted to the larger city, which was able to use its control over gate positions at Los Angeles International Airport as leverage with airlines to induce them to fly into and out of Ontario. In 1967, fewer than 200,000 passengers passed through Ontario Airport’s gates and it had a flea infested gravel parking lot. Almost immediately Los Angeles made substantial investments in Ontario Airport, and in relatively short order ridership at Ontario Airport increased dramatically.
All told, Los Angeles instituted some $550 million worth of improvements to the airport, including paving its parking lot, laying down a second and entirely new east-to-west runway over its obsolete northeast-to-southwest landing strip, and modernizing its existing east-to-west runway, including the widening of taxiways and the addition of storm drains. Ontario Airport’s landing and take-off paths were converted into the longest such civilian facility in Southern California, and Los Angeles erected a state-of-the-art control tower, and constructed two ultra-modern terminals at a cost of $270 million, augmented with a world class concourse. In 1985, after all of the criteria laid out in the joint powers agreement were met, the Ontario City Council, defying the wishes of then-mayor Robert Ellingwood, deeded the airport to Los Angeles for no consideration during a council meeting where Ellingwood was not in attendance. In 2007, 7.2 million passengers came through Ontario Airport, a 3,600 percent increase over what Ontario had been able to achieve on its own 40 years before.
But with the economic downturn that hit the nation, state and region in 2007, the number of passengers using Ontario Airport diminished. Over the next four years, relations between the city of Ontario and the city of Los Angeles soured, with Ontario officials accusing the city of Los Angeles of using the corporate entity it had created to run both Los Angeles International Airport and Ontario Aairport, known as Los Angeles World Airports, to purposefully mismanage Ontario Airport in a deliberate effort to boost ridership at Los Angeles International Airport. Coincidentally, Los Angeles World Airports in 2007 had embarked on an energetic capital improvement program at Los Angeles International Airport.
Beginning in 2010, Ontario officials, led by councilman Alan Wapner, initiated an increasingly strident public relations campaign aimed at convincing the public that Los Angeles should return Ontario Airport to the city of Ontario. Caught in the crosshairs of that campaign was the then-executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, Gina Marie Lindsay. Wapner mercilessly portrayed her as being intent upon destroying the economy of the Inland Empire by what he said was a deliberate effort to destroy the viability of Ontario Airport.
In 2013 the city of Ontario, through the high powered Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, filed suit against Los Angeles, seeking to force it to turn ownership and control of the airport back over to Ontario. The case was being heard by Riverside Superior Court Judge Gloria Connor Trask. Earlier this year, the city of Los Angeles announced that Lindsay was retiring as the head of Los Angeles World Airports. Then in August, just before the case was to go to trial before Trask, what Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti coyly told Los Angeles residents was a $260 million transaction and which Ontario officials called a $150 million deal, Los Angeles agreed to transfer the airport to a locally-based airport authority in return for Ontario putting up $150 million for the airport itself, forking over another $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 assuming roughly $60 million in bonded indebtedness relating to past improvements at the airport.
Last week the Ontario City Council closely scrutinized the documents by which the airport transfer will be effectuated. There was only limited opportunity for the public to examine those terms, as the transfer documents were considered by the council in a closed session that lasted more than 40 minutes. The council gave direction for city staff and its legal team to proceed toward implementing the agreement, which will also need approval by the Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles World Airport’s Board of Airport Commissioners and the Ontario International Airport Authority, which was created last year in San Bernardino County to take on eventual management of the airport, prior to the full contents and context of the agreement being publicly released.
As city officials were hailing the emerging agreement as a development of historic moment, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which represents the current Los Angeles World Airports employees employed at Ontario Airport, leapt into the breach. The union’s representatives went before the Los Angeles City Council’s Trade, Commerce and Technology Subcommittee on October 20, asking that the committee and the full council to include them and their requests in the council’s discussions with regard to the finalization of the deal for the airport transfer to Ontario well before the council vote on accepting the final transfer document is registered.
The union wants the Los Angeles City Council to write into the transfer document protection for the current workers at Ontario Airport that will guarantee that they will retain their positions at the airport after Los Angeles World Airports is no longer the entity managing airport operations in Ontario.
That might present some difficulty for Ontario. In the lead up to the lawsuit and during the lawsuit, while Ontario was contending that Los Angeles World Airports was mismanaging the airport, there were suggestions that the high cost of operating the airport was driving up the costs passed along to airlines flying into and out of Ontario. Those costs were discouraging the airlines from scheduling more flights into and out of Ontario, Ontario officials contended. Ontario officials claim their takeover of the airport will entail greater efficiency than was in place while Los Angeles was calling the shots.
If the Los Angeles City Council insists that Ontario retain all of the current Los Angeles World Airports employees in place at Ontario Airport in order for the transfer to proceed, that could hamstring Ontario in its efforts to streamline airport operations and achieve operational cost savings that would be passed along to the airlines.

Leave a Reply