Ontario Airport Sees Significant Declines In Ridership & Uprating In Freight

Slightly less than ten years after the City of Ontario, led by City Councilman Alan Wapner, undertook a no-holds-barred and ultimately successful campaign to wrest control and ownership of Ontario International Airport from the City of Los Angeles, the ridership decline that occurred at the aerodrome over a decade ago which was used as Ontario’s justification for its takeover move has replicated itself.
Beginning in 2011, Wapner began a full-frontal attack on the City of Los Angeles, claiming the steady decline in the number of passengers at the airport from the 7.2 million that passed through its gates in 2007 was a function of the disregard and neglect that Los Angeles and the corporate entity, Los Angeles World Airports, which Los Angeles used to manage the operation of Los Angeles International Airport, Van Nuys Airport and Ontario Airport, had exhibited toward Ontario and its aviation facility.
Most airline industry analysts and Los Angeles city officials maintained that the decline in passengers at Ontario International Airport, known by its Federal Aviation Administration abbreviated designation ONT, was a consequence of the steep economic downturn that gripped the nation, State of California and the region beginning in the fall of 2007 and which maintained itself for more than a half of a decade as the “great recession.”
Wapner’s intent, which was shared by his council colleagues and that of Ontario’s top administrators, was to force the City of Los Angeles to disgorge the airport, and allow Ontario to take charge of its destiny rather than entrusting it to the megalopolis 45 miles to the west.
The larger city’s acquisition of the airport had come about as the consequence of a joint operating agreement Ontario forged with the City of Los Angeles in November 1967, when Ontario Airport yet had a sand-flea-infested gravel parking lot and fewer than 200,000 passengers passing through its gates annually. Under that agreement, Los Angeles was 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.
Though a benchmark of 10 million passengers at the airport by 1975 was not achieved, Los Angeles World Airports was nevertheless assiduously promoting Ontario International Airport.
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-à-vis the airport could not have been more positive or cordial.
All told, Los Angeles instituted some $550 million worth of improvements to the airport, including paving its parking lot, modernizing its runways, 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 facilities 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 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.
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 his campaign, Wapner, called upon Los Angeles to simply deed the airfield and all it entailed back to Ontario. When this did not occur, he unleashed a strident and uncivil attack on Los Angeles, Los Angeles officials, and most pointedly against Los Angeles World Airports Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey.
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, ignoring such entreaties, stepped up his 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 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.
Ignored in all of the hoopla, self-congratulating and general backslapping among Ontario officials over Ontario’s reclaiming of the airport 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, an outgrowth of the consideration that Ontario did not have the leverage to offer the various airlines incentives, such as preferable gate positions at Los Angeles International Airport, to induce them to increase, or even maintain, flights into Ontario.
Under Ontario leadership and management over the last three-and-a-half years, the airport has been making some level of a comeback, though it has yet to see the passenger numbers it did in 2007 when Los Angles was calling the shots. In 2018, China Airlines, a Taiwanese carrier, launched nonstop service between Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport and Ontario International Airport, a development which boosted the airport’s status as a true international facility. Previously, the airport boasted flights to Mexico offered by both AeroMexico and Volaris, though the addition of those flights came in 2014, while the airport was being managed by Los Angeles World Airports.
Ontario’s most spectacular show on the international flight stage came while the airport was still owned and managed by Los Angeles, in June 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping flew into Ontario International Airport for a summit with then-President Barack Obama. That raised hopes that some of the 20 airlines that are based in the People’s Republic of China would initiate regular direct flights to and from Ontario International Airport. Ontario officials have not been able to make any headway in that regard.
On occasion, huge Russian Antononv-124 strategic airlift jets have landed at Ontario Airport.
Last month, with the coronavirus crisis continuing to put a damper on air passenger travel, the number of passengers who passed through Ontario International Airport’s gates dropped by 85 percent, officials announced.
Unlike the way Wapner and Ontario officials used the economic downturn which created a drawdown in passengers flying into and out of Ontario to assert Los Angeles was mismanaging the airport, no one took the opportunity the recent passenger dip presented to criticize Ontario officials for their mishandling of the airport’s management.
Ontario officials themselves sought to overlook the ridership decline, instead seeking a silver lining in the cloud.
Simultaneous with the decrease in passengers, the airport saw extraordinary growth in commercial air freight into the facility, with the amount of tonnage escalating by 24 percent, the third straight month of better than 20 percent gains as commercial cargo is being brought into an increasingly sedentary population, quarantined at home in an effort to stymie the spread of the virus.
Ontario processed over 81,000 tons of commercial cargo last month, which qualified as 24.1 percent more than May 2019. From January through May, freight into and out of the airport eclipsed 342,000 tons, a 18.3 percent increase over the same five months of last year.
“The global coronavirus pandemic continued to drive dramatic changes in cargo and passenger volumes as Southern Californians remained at home and relied on the e-commerce supply chain for many of their household supplies,” said Mark Thorpe, chief executive officer of the Ontario International Airport Authority. “At the same time, like airports across the U.S., we saw another month of significantly lower passenger volumes. Nonetheless, we are optimistic that passenger traffic will pick up in the coming months based on flight schedules published by air carriers.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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