Sunday, January 11, 2015

CASSIE MACDUFF: Hard to be optimistic about Ontario International Airport (KONT), California

Losing passengers, flights and market share to LAX, Ontario International needs local control. But how, when past promises have gone unfulfilled? 

Nearly 15 years ago, then-Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn called for a “regional aviation program (to) redistribute Southern California’s air traffic demand from Los Angeles International to other regional airports,” as reported in the L.A. Times.

Hahn’s successor, Antonio Villaraigosa, in 2005 touted a regional aviation strategy to send more flights to Ontario International and Palmdale, both owned and operated by Los Angeles World Airports, a city department.

In 2006, Los Angeles agreed in a lawsuit settlement under Villaraigosa to regionalize air traffic across Southern California to take the pressure off LAX and its neighbors.

Fast-forward to 2015.

L.A. officials last week celebrated a record-breaking 71.4 million passengers flowing through the gates of LAX in 2014, and the growth of LAX’s market share to 76.4 percent of the SoCal market – the highest in 25 years, according to the Times.

The numbers don’t lie: Rather than sharing the wealth of Southern California’s air-service market, L.A. is hogging it even more than it did when all those promises to regionalize it were made.

Palmdale closed as a commercial airport in 2009.

Ontario International lost passengers steadily beginning in 2008. A slight rebound last year will nudge its 2014 count to 4.1 million – still nowhere near the 7.2 million in 2005 and 2007.

But does it represent a baby step toward regionalizing Southern California air traffic? I doubt it. Ontario’s share of the market isn’t growing.

The decline in passengers and flights from 2008 to 2014 punched a $3.6 billion hole in the Inland economy, including the loss of 10,700 jobs.

So there is urgency to transfer Ontario International to local control, under which Ontario leaders hope to revive the airport with more flights, new development and restored marketing.

Last week, Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, called for Los Angeles to agree to a fair price, “not a king’s ransom that could jeopardize essential (local) services,” to let the Ontario International Airport Authority take the reins.

If L.A. and Inland Empire officials can’t agree “in the near future,” Melendez wrote, “then we may have to take legislative action at the state level.”

What exactly can the state do to force a transfer? I tried to ask Melendez, but she was in transit from Sacramento on Friday after the governor’s budget announcement.

I’d like to be optimistic. But look at the track record. Legislators and lawmakers have been trying to gain leverage over the proceedings for years.

In 2011, then-state Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, introduced a bill to create a seven-member airport authority to manage ONT. After gaining some support, the bill was suspended to give Ontario leaders time to negotiate an agreement with L.A.

No agreement was reached. Ontario created a five-member authority in fall 2012.

In February 2012, Inland Republican Reps. Jerry Lewis and Ken Calvert called on Los Angeles and the federal government to do more to reverse ONT’s decline.

“Both the FAA and LAWA have millions of dollars invested in this airport, but if they don’t do more to make it work, we will soon be faced with millions of people having to drive across Los Angeles to LAX just to catch a flight,” Lewis said at the time.

Neither L.A. nor the FAA did anything to change the situation. Thousands of Inland folks drive to LAX.

In May 2012, then-Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino, threatened to withhold $75 million in federal funding if the airport weren’t transferred to local control in 60 days. No transfer took place, no funds were withheld.

In September 2012, then-Rep. Gary Miller, R-Rancho Cucamonga, held a House Transportation Committee aviation subcommittee hearing in Ontario about ONT’s dire situation. Afterward? Nothing changed.

While I appreciate Melendez’s strong comments, I still don’t know whether the state can force Los Angeles to give up Ontario airport.

Melendez’s spokesman, Sam Spencer, said the assemblywoman prefers the cities work out a solution. State action is a last resort, he said. Goes without saying.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti will meet with Ontario leaders early next month. They sought the face-to-face with him because they’ve been getting mixed signals between his support for local control and his negotiators’ stance behind closed doors, Ontario City Manager Al Boling told me.

Meanwhile, the wait goes on for a decision from a Riverside judge in Ontario’s lawsuit against L.A., on motions to void the agreements that gave Los Angeles control of the Inland airport to begin with.

The decision is expected before a Feb. 6 hearing in the case.

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