In Volume Terms, Ontario Airport Ranks Higher As A Cargo Carrier Than Passenger Aerodrome

Ontario officials are slowly coming to terms with the paradox within their now-seven plus years-long reassumption of ownership and management of their eponymous international airport.
Though they now have autonomy over the aerodrome that bears their city’s name, those officials have resigned themselves to not seeing ridership at the airport eclipsing what was its highest level historically achieved while it was under the management of the City of Los Angeles more than a decade-and-a-half ago for what is likely to be another five years.
In short, while the City of Ontario in a real sense took control of its destiny, at least as far as the airport is concerned, with the 2016 retaking of Ontario International, that independence has come at a significantly higher cost than the $270 million the city paid in the reacquision, most particularly in terms of the loss of leverage it once had, albeit indirectly, with commercial airlines.
Today, Ontario Airport’s claim to fame rests on its status as the ninth-largest airport in the county in terms of transporting cargo. That contrasts with its ranking among U.S. airports in terms of the numbers of passengers embarking there, where it stands in 56th place.
In pursuing its renewed and now achieved control of the airport, Ontario city officials pressed the claim that Los Angeles was mismanaging the asset and purposefully doing so to limit the number of airline passengers traveling through Ontario. The said that once the airport was freed from the confining clutches of Los Angeles and again under local ownership, they envisioned passenger traffic climbing exponentially, such that by 2025 – next year – Ontario International would take its rightful place as one of the top twenty air route points of departure/destination in the country and that by 2035 it would fall within the top ten. Such goals, at this point, seem ludicrous, and there is little prospect, short of some unanticipated disaster that would provide for the utter destruction of Los Angeles International Airport, that the first would be achieved within the next generation or that the second will see fruition this century.
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-à-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.
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 manipulating the situation to raise costs at Ontario International and thereby minimize both ridership and revenues 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 and debt serviced by taxpayers in Los Angeles.
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 self-congratulating 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.
What Ontario had surrendered in ending its relationship with Los Angeles was the entree the megalopolis, by virtue of its ownership of an airport that serves as one of the major international gateways into the United States from across the Pacific Ocean, enjoys with airlines. With a flick of their wrists, Los Angeles World Airports officials, by threatening to withhold desirable gate positions at Los Angeles International Airport or promising to provide the same, could induce airline executives of both national and international airlines to consider landing at or flying out of Ontario. Ontario officials had no such leverage.
By 2017, the events that had set off the so-called “Great Recession” were ten years in the past and the economy had fully recovered, indeed had come roaring back. Ontario was now fully in control of the airport, through the Ontario International Airport Authority it had created, the board of which Wapner was the president. Accordingly, Ontario Airport should have been at near its 7.2 million ridership level of 2007. Yet, the contretemps that Wapner had created between Ontario and Los Angeles during the last four years of the larger city’s ownership of the airport and its control over those operations and the loss of influence that Ontario had experienced with the airlines made that impossible.
In 2015, while Los Angeles had full control of the airport, it had a total ridership of 4,209,311, that is, a passenger count of those who both flew into and flew out of Ontario Airport. In 2016, the first ten months of which the airport was yet being managed by Los Angeles, the passenger count was 4,251,903. In 2017 it reached 4,552,225; followed by 5,115,894 in 2018 and 5,583,732 in 2019. In 2020, Ontario officials would experience firsthand a ridership slump that occurs as a consequence of factors beyond their immediate control, just as Los Angeles officials had seen in the years following the 2007 economic downturn, when the COVID pandemic cut across most sectors of the U.S., indeed world, economy, including airlines. In 2020, the number of passengers into and out of Ontario dipped to 2,538,482. In the face of that decline, Wapner, who was yet the Ontario International Airport Authority’s board president, was unable to lay responsibility for that at the feet of Los Angeles. In 2021, with the lifting of both national and state restrictions relating to the pandemic, ridership at Ontario International increased to 4,496,592. That was followed by 5,740,593 in 2022 and 6,430,033 in 2023.
Historically at Ontario International Airport, growth in passengers and cargo had grown on a roughly even pace. The economic downturn of 2007 shows that external factors often drove the airport’s performance. In 2007, for example, when the things were moving along well at the airport, 7,207,150 passengers and 532,865 tons of freight moved through it. The following year, with the recession in full gear, the number of passengers dropped to 6,232,975 and freight tonnage to 481,284. The next year, 2009, the trend continued to 4,861,110 passengers and 391,060 tons. When Wapner began assailing Los Angeles city officials and Los Angeles World Airports employees over the drop off in ridership at Ontario International, he made no mention of the same diminution in air shipping that was taking place. At that point, the narrative Ontario officials were propounding was that Los Angeles was responsible for the airport’s poor performance, which matched the city’s overarching political goal of reasserting itself as the airport’s rightful owner.
The post-November 1, 2016 era of Ontario’s ownership and management of Ontario International Airport has corresponded with an expansion of the local, state and national economy, with, of course, the exception of the 18-to20 month paralysis accompanying the COVID shutdowns from early 2020 until mid-2021. In that timeframe, the performance numbers at the airport have shown steady improvement, again reflecting the advancement of the economy.
Of note, however, regarding Ontario International Airport, the growth on the cargo side of its operations has seriously outpaced that on its passenger side. The aerodrome boasts a robust roster of freight carriers, which includes Amazon Prime Air, Federal Express and United Parcel Service. In June 2023, the airport board approved entering into exclusive negotiations with a company identified in October 2023 as DHL for the development of a project dubbed the South Airport Cargo Center. Infrastructure put in place by both Los Angeles and Ontario has given the airport the capacity to increase its cargo volumes.
The airport has In 2016, the year that Ontario took back control of the airport, freight tonnage stood at 567,295, which was up from 509,809 in 2015. The freight handled at the airport jumped to 654,378 tons, 751,529 tons and 781,993, respectively, in 2017, 2018 and 2019. In 2020, with the onset of the pandemic and the need for consumers and businesses to take advantage of e-commerce sources for household goods, materials and supplies, and Ontario International saw phenomenal growth in its operations, moving toward but not quite eclipsing the million ton threshold, as 924,160 tons of merchandise was transported through the airport that year. With the passage of the critical phase of the pandemic and the advent of vaccines that resulted in the withdrawal of government restrictions, the level of e-commerce declined in 2021, and the tonnage through the airport dropped as well, to a yet impressive 890,383 tons. In 2022, the number again declined, to 853,165 tons. In 2023, Ontario International had returned to its pre-pandemic level of cargo transport, at 752,199.
The comparison between Ontario International’s performance as a venue for cargo carriers as opposed to being a launching and landing site for passenger aircraft is stark. As a cargo airport, Ontario International ranks behind just eight others – Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Memphis International Airport, Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, Los Angelese International Airport, Miami International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport International Airport and Indianapolis International Airport.
As a passenger departure spot or destination, however, it stands behind 55 others.
While the reasons Ontario cannot attract passengers in the numbers like more than four dozen other airports across the country are myriad, some of those extend to its management and ownership and the bridges that management and ownership burned in gaining control over the management and title to the airport.
As politics in San Bernardino County goes, Ontario has been relatively stable, with less turnover on its city council over the last three decades in all but three other of the county’s 24 cities. At the time of Ontario’s reassumption of the airport’s ownership in November 2016, four of the five members of the city council now in office were in office then. The other, Ruben Valencia, was elected to the council later that month. Of those four, Councilman Alan Wapner has been in office since 1994, Mayor Paul Leon has been on the council since 1998, Councilman Jim Bowman, who was previously on the council, has been a member of the council continuously since 2006. Councilwoman Debra Dorst-Porada has been on the council since 2008. Thus, Leon, Bowman and Dorst-Porada were participants in and, to one degree or another, supporters of the strategy Wapner applied in stripping the City of Los Angeles of its ownership of Ontario Airport. In proceeding with Wapner’s game plan, the city forewent using an alternative approach, one that would have involved Leon, as Ontario mayor, using his childhood connection with then-Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa to work out some order of an amicable agreement to transfer legal possession of the airport back to the city in which it is located. A decision to make use of Wapners more aggressive – indeed hostile – approach was made, and the opportunity of a Villaraigosa/Leon accommodation being forged, a favorable circumstance that was not likely to along more than once-in-a-lifetime or even once-in-a-century-or-more, was lost. Villaraigosa left office in 2013.
While in 2015, Los Angeles officials consented to graciously divesting their city of the airport in exchange for far less money than they might have otherwise insisted upon, freeing Ontario Airport from the management of Los Angeles World Airports involved depriving the City of Ontario of certain advantages, not the least of which is the favorable relationship Los Angeles World Airports officers have with the airlines.
In 2007, no fewer than 14 airlines flew into and out of Ontario International Airport. With the downturn of the economy, within three years, six of those airlines discontinued flights to Ontario, decisions made because it was no longer economical for them to remain. Another of those airlines went out of business. It was the dwindling of airlines at the airport to seven, which fueled much of Alan Wapner’s anger toward Los Angeles and Los Angeles International Airport and formed part of the basis of his attacks on Los Angeles officials and Los Angles World Airports. At his point, Ontario International Airport has managed to pick up five more airlines, two of which agreed to come back to Ontario while Los Angeles was yet managing the airport. Today, Ontario Airport features 12 airlines, two fewer than it did in 2007.
Meanwhile, at Los Angeles International Airport, with its 79 airlines, officials overseeing that airport – meaning the executives with Los Angeles World Airports – like bureaucrats everywhere, have long memories. The memory of how they were treated by Ontario officials and the accusations made against them, including ones suggesting that they were purposefully mismanaging the Ontario Airport after its operations had been entrusted to them, remains. Accordingly, they have no incentive, indeed are disinclined, to request of any of the airline executives they deal with to consider making use of the runway, concourse and terminal in Ontario, at the airfield 57 miles to east of Los Angeles International Airport.
Few would suggest that the effort to liberate Ontario International Airport from the City of Los Angeles and deliver it back to Ontario, giving that city domain over an important element of its own destiny, was not a worthwhile endeavor, one that will ultimately redound to its benefit as a governmental jurisdiction and that of the current and future residents who live there. Realists recognize for that to have been accomplished, it required someone with the drive and determination that Alan Wapner evinced in that effort. Still, even as people admire him for what he did, virtually everyone who knows anything about what occurred and now its aftermath, have tremendous reservations about how he did it. As he comes up on his 30th year in office, many of his constituents and those he is associated with at Ontario City Hall and Ontario International Airport are awaiting the time when he will no longer be in office as a councilman and as the president of the airport board and his often bellicose approach to governance has departed with him, so Ontario officials can once again approach Los Angeles officials and talk productively about sharing responsibilities and opportunities for providing regional airline travel accommodations to a major portion of Southern California’s population.
-Mark Gutglueck

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