With Ontario Airport Ridership Up, Questions Persist Over Wisdom Of Break With LA

Ontario International Airport, the ownership and complete control of which was returned primarily to the City of Ontario in 2016, this year continued to make strides toward recapturing the passenger numbers and performance milestones it reached under the surer guidance of the City of Los Angeles and the corporate arm the megalopolis uses to operate its airports.
According to a December 12 press release from the Ontario International Airport Authority “Ontario International Airport is the fastest-growing airport in the United States for the second consecutive year.”  That claim, the release said, “was based on a survey of frequent travelers by Global Traveler, a leading industry publication geared to business and luxury fliers who travel extensively in the U.S. and abroad.”
The second year of substantial growth, according to the authority “comes as Ontario International Airport Authority has seen its year-over-year passenger volumes jump another 8.3 percent through the first 10 months of 2019, driven by a 39.5 percent increase in international travel. Ontario welcomed more than 5.1 million passengers in 2018 and, at the current pace, as many as 5.5 million are expected this year, the highest figure since 2008 when 6.2 million moved through the airport.”
Key to further anticipated improvement in passenger numbers has been Frontier Airlines’ intensification of its flights into and out of the airport.
Frontier, which markets itself as a low-fare airline, has had berths at Ontario International Airport since 2017. Currently, the Denver-based airline has flights out of Ontario International Airport to its hub city Denver as well as Orlando and Austin.
In August, Frontier and Ontario International Airport’s Administration announced that no later than April and perhaps as early as March 2020, Frontier Airlines will begin a direct flight from Ontario International Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport. Frontier will thus become the second carrier providing direct flights into what is essentially New York City from Ontario International Airport. JetBlue Airways currently provides a red-eye flight to New York’s Kennedy Airport from Ontario. Frontier will also offer daily nonstop flights to and from Miami and Denver beginning on April 23.
Frontier utilizes Airbus A320 aircraft, which have 180 seats.
Frontier will offer four flights a week to El Salvador International Airport starting May 7 and three flights to Guatemala City as of June 18.
The expansion of its repertoire to two major Latin America cities firms up the airport’s somewhat tenuous claim to being an international airport. While it had such status in the past, its international flights at present are limited, with only sporadic exceptions, to AeroMexico and Volaris flights to Mexico City, Cancun, Tijuana, Vera Cruz, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas, and China Airlines flights to Taiwan.
“This significant expansion of air service adds to Ontario’s momentum and reaffirms our status as the nation’s fasting growing airport,” said Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner, the president of the Ontario International Airport Authority Board of Commissioners. “At a time when few airports in Southern California are consistently attracting more air travelers, Ontario is bucking the trend with double-digit passenger growth, which is good news for the Inland Empire economy. We are thrilled that low-fare Frontier Airlines has chosen Ontario to open its nonstop, cross-country service from Southern California to Newark Liberty International Airport.
“This will mark the first time in the airport’s 90-year history that it has offered nonstop flights to Newark, and the first time that our airport has enjoyed options to the Garden State and the Big Apple.” Wapner added.
Wapner has much at stake in the airport making a comeback under Ontario’s guidance.
In 1967, when Ontario Airport yet had a sand-flea-infested 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 its leverage, Los Angeles persuaded a whole host of airlines to begin flying into and out of Ontario.
By 1969, flights out of Ontario dramatically increased. In short order, Continental Airlines, PSA, United, American Airlines, Hughes Air West, and Delta established routes from Ontario. In the early 1970s, Ontario was in competition with John Wayne Airport in Orange County, which at that time was expanding dramatically. Though a benchmark of 10 million passengers at the airport by 1975 was not achieved, Los Angeles World Airports, the corporate entity running the Los Angeles Municipal Department of Airports, still assiduously promoted Ontario International.
In 1981, a modern, second east-to-west runway was built, necessitating the removal of the old northeast-to-southwest runway.
By the early 1980s Los Angeles had met all the criteria laid out in the 1967 joint powers agreement. The City of Ontario was at that time led by Mayor Robert Ellingwood, who was resistant to the concept of Ontario complying with the terms of the joint powers authority agreement and turning ownership of the airport over to Los Angeles. In 1985, during Ellingwood’s brief absence from the city, four members of the Ontario City Council as it was then composed voted to deed Ontario Airport to the City of Los Angeles for no consideration. That transaction was considered a public benefit transfer.  With a few notable exceptions, such as Ellingwood, most Ontario officials at that time believed granting Los Angeles possession of the airport to be beneficial.
Indeed, over the four decades from 1967 until 2007, the relationship between Ontario and Los Angeles vis-a-vis the airport could not have been more positive or cordial.
In the fall of 2007, however, there was a massive financial lull when not just Ontario and Los Angeles but all of Southern California, California and the entire nation was first gripped by what would turn out to be a six-year-running economic downturn and lingering recession. 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 early 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 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 Los Angeles World Airports Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey, at first ignored and then began to resist that effort, which grew increasingly strident and uncivil.
Cooler heads, meanwhile, were seeking to restrain Wapner, asserting that he was needlessly antagonizing Los Angeles officials, who in any event did not have the antipathy toward Ontario he was alleging, reminding him that Los Angeles was in a much better position to negotiate with airlines domestically and worldwide than was Ontario. Moreover, it was pointed out, Ontario Mayor Paul Leon and then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had grown up in the same neighborhood and were childhood friends. Leon’s connection to Villaraigosa could be used with far greater effect to negotiate an outcome favorable to Ontario, it was suggested, than Wapner’s more antagonistic approach. Wapner, however, was having none of that. With Wapner in the lead, Ontario stepped up its rhetoric, openly charging that Lindsey had evinced hostility toward the City of Ontario and its airport, and was deliberately mismanaging 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.
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 Los Angeles World Airports with willful mismanagement of Ontario Airport, and seeking the return of the aerodrome to the city in which it is located.
Having already raised the campaign of attack against Los Angeles to a fever pitch, Wapner personalized it even further after the lawsuit was underway. The Wapner-directed attacks occurred against a backdrop of jockeying between the two cities over the “value” of the airport, i.e., the amount of money that was to change hands if the airport title were to be handed back to Ontario. Wapner 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, pointed out that over $500 million dollars had 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 was 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 officials 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.
In August 2015, just as the matter was headed to trial before Riverside Superior Court Judge Gloria Connor Trask, Ontario and Los Angeles forged a tentative settlement, announcing that ownership and management of Ontario International Airport would be returned to the city whose name the aerodrome bears. Mayors Eric Garcetti and Paul Leon disclosed that Ontario was to lay out $150 million for the airport and provide another $60 million to purchase assets technically belonging to Los Angeles World Airports that were in place at Ontario Airport and which were crucial or indispensable to its operations. In addition, Ontario had agreed to assume the debt service on roughly $60 million in bonded indebtedness Los Angeles had taken on over the years to make improvements at the facility.
In December 2015, Los Angeles and Ontario signed an agreement finalizing the transfer as of November 1, 2016, with Ontario paying Los Angeles $60 million out of its various operating funds and another $30 million taken out of its reserves, and committing to make payments of $50 million over five years and $70 million in the final five years of the ten-year ownership transition. In addition, Ontario absorbed $60 million of the airport’s bond debt.
There was considerable hoopla, self-congratulating and general backslapping among Ontario officials over Ontario’s reclaiming of the airport. Only vaguely acknowledged was that in the previous two years, even as Ontario was badmouthing Los Angeles and suing it, ridership at the airport, which at one point had dwindled to less than 4 million annually, was again beginning to inch up under Los Angeles World Airports’ direction as the economy was making a turnaround. Nor did Ontario officials dwell on how, in the immediate aftermath of the deal giving the city ownership and control of the airport, the number of passengers going through the airfield’s turnstiles actually declined. In January 2016 Ontario saw 934 fewer people pass through the airport’s gates – 312,413 – than the 313,347 who had embarked in January 2015.
In the nearly four years since, as the airport is now operating more and more under the official administrative control of Ontario, the ridership numbers at the airport have made a steady climb. That, Wapner and many Ontario officials maintain, vindicates them in the city’s effort to recapture control over the airport.
Whether, in fact, Ontario’s control has been the boon and benefit those officials claim is subject to some contravention. A yardstick applied by others would suggest that the airport and its future as a major transportation hub has been harmed by the city takeover. As a comparison of the airport’s actual performance over the last three years under Ontario’s ownership and what would have occurred if it had remained within the portfolio of Los Angeles World Airports is not possible, interpretations and conclusions, which are conjecture in any event, vary. What can be gleaned from the statistics is that from 2007 until 2013, the number of passengers at Ontario International Airport made a steady decline. In 2007, the yet-standing record for travelers there, 7,207,150 passed through the airport’s gates; in 2008, 6,232,975; in 2009, 4,861,110; in 2010, 4,812,578; in 2011, 4,540,694; in 2012, 4,296,459; and in 2013, 3,971,136. All of those numbers track with the overall performance of the U.S., California and local economy. Thereafter, beginning with 2014 onward, the ridership numbers steadily increased, including the last three years during which the airport was under the control of Los Angeles. In 2014, 4,127,280 flew out of Ontario; in 2015, 4,209,311; in 2016, 4,251,903; in 2017, 4,552,22; in 2018, 5,115,894. It is anticipated 2019 will show an increase along the previous trajectory.  It does not appear that the increases are a function of the airport’s ownership and control, but rather that of the vastly improved general economy. Indeed, attributing the improvements to Ontario’s stewardship of the airport is problematic from the standpoint that the current management and operation of the airport is, in a manner of speaking, a continuation of Los Angeles World Airport’s control of the same. More than 92 percent of the current employees at the airport, numbering 224, from maintenance crew members, to baggage handlers, to flight line personnel, to inspectors, to technicians, to supervisors, to secretaries, to administrators, are former Los Angeles World Airports personnel. Initially, the Ontario International Airport Authority Board of Directors, which has Wapner as its chairman, had gone outside the airport, Ontario, Los Angeles World Airports and California to find a chief executive officer for the airport. In March 2016, Kelly Fredericks, who had been both the president and CEO of T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island, was tapped to oversee the airport and to guide the city in its transition to ownership and operation of Ontario International. But differences manifested which separated Fredericks from Wapner and other members of the board, in no small measure relating to Fredericks’ belief that the airport should hang onto its assets, including what the members of the board feel is “surplus” property surrounding the airport. Fredericks wanted the city to retain that property for further expansion and growth purposes, and he was skeptical of the motives of Wapner and other airport authority board members who appeared intent on selling that property to speculators and developers Fredericks suspected of having influence over those board members, either through the provision of hefty political contributions to them or other financial and business connections. After Fredericks was forced out in July 2017, the board turned to Mark Thorpe, who was a creature of Los Angeles World Airports, having been its director of air service development and marketing from 2003 until 2011 before he had departed to eventually take on the position of head of cargo and logistics development at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Thorpe returned to the Los Angeles World Airports fold in August 2016, whereupon he was immediately assigned to Ontario International Airport as the chief development officer there during the final phase of Los Angeles’s ownership and operation of Ontario International.
For several reasons, observers and airline industry professionals believe that Ontario’s, and in particular Wapner’s, campaign to regain control of the airport was one angled at the extension of personal control and political ambition and advancement than an improvement of the airport’s management and operations.
Evidence to support this supposition consists of the leverage that Wapner and the other Ontario officials surrendered with their city’s retaking of the airport. Paramount among the metrics in determining whether the fullest, highest and best use of the aerodrome is being achieved is ridership there. The formula that Los Angeles World Airports had for achieving ever higher passenger levels at Ontario International was to bring as many  carriers to Ontario as possible. More than 70 airlines fly into and out of Los Angeles International Airport. With its control over gate positions at Los International Airport, Los Angeles World Airports could offer inducements to airlines to convince them to schedule flights to Ontario. At one point during its heyday under the management of Los Angeles World Airports, Ontario Airport had twice the number of airlines using its runway as it does today. At its nadir earlier this decade, the number of airlines at Ontario International had dwindled to seven. At present, it boasts ten:  Alaska, Frontier, Southwest, American Airlines, China Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Volaris, United and AeroMexico.
Without the clout of Los Angeles to back it, Ontario no longer has the drawing power to attract carriers. Limited to the ten airlines it now hosts, Ontario International may be approaching a passenger ceiling that will prevent it from matching or exceeding its 2007 numbers for another decade.
In the meantime, Ontario International Airport officials are upbeat in the face of the  gains in passenger participation at the airport in recent years, as well as the willingness of its existing airlines to increase flights and flight frequency.
“We have developed a strong, positive relationship with Frontier since it initiated service at Ontario in 2017 and we couldn’t be happier by the news of the additional Frontier routes,” said Thorpe, speaking in his capacity as the chief executive officer of the Ontario International Airport Authority. “Frontier prides itself on its low-fare flights and we at Ontario pride ourselves on being a low-cost airport with the facilities, services and amenities that appeal to our customers, not to mention our hassle-free experience.”
“Credit for our airport’s success is due to the consistent support of our community neighbors, who welcome our customers with open arms and enthusiastically support our plans to develop a major aviation hub in the Inland Empire,” said Wapner. “We pride ourselves in offering the facilities, services and amenities that appeal to our customers and, as a result, our airport continues to be an attractive destination for leisure and business travelers in Southern California and an economic driver for the region.”
Thorpe said, “It’s an honor to serve one of the fastest-growing population and economic centers in the country. Our mission has been and remains to build the best airport in America for travelers who value convenience, a great customer experience and a wide variety of destinations that meet their needs.”
Airport officials pointed out that “Ontario has an estimated capacity of 30 million annual passengers with the optimal infrastructure for growth in Southern California; an unconstrained airfield with no curfew or noise restrictions; runways long enough for any commercial airplane flying today; an operational federal inspection station to accommodate international flights; plenty of aircraft gates for long-term airline growth; and ground transportation options with easy curbside access to passenger terminals.”
All of those facilities were put in place under the City of Los Angeles’s management of the airport.
-Mark Gutglueck

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