So, Ontario is getting its airport back. What now?
The small San Bernardino County city built the airport as World War II was beginning, allowed it to be used as a military training base during the war and resumed civilian traffic afterward.
Two decades later, Ontario ceded management control to the city of Los Angeles and later turned over ownership. By and by, Los Angeles invested millions of dollars in two large new terminals, with contingency plans to build two more, replacing the decrepit, World War II-vintage facilities it inherited.
Traffic reached 7.2 million passengers in 2007, most of them via Southwest Airlines, but as recession hammered the Inland Empire, flights and passengers plummeted, the latter to as low as 4.2 million.
Ontario International’s decline has sparked years of acrimonious exchanges over the decline’s causes and effects.
Ontario blamed it on promotional neglect by the Los Angeles airport system, violating an agreement to promote regional airport use, while Los Angeles blamed it on the recession.
Ontario – the city – formed an Ontario International Airport Authority and began campaigning to resume ownership, including a lawsuit alleging mismanagement that was to go to trial this month.
Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Ontario officials announced a deal that would return the airport to local ownership. But Ontario will have to reimburse Los Angeles for the money it has invested in the airport, which means it will begin business in a financial hole, with airline and passenger traffic still well below capacity.
The Inland Empire’s economic recovery is still slow, and Ontario International will no longer have marketing help from Los Angeles’ airport system, so it faces a stiff challenge to achieve prosperity.
It will need some creative management, and one solution to its dilemma may lie 100 miles south via Interstate 15.
While Ontario has oodles of unused capacity, San Diego’s airport is bursting at the seams and decades of searching for an alternative site has proved unsuccessful. It’s especially vexing for San Diego, because it has remade itself into a major travel, resort and convention destination, yet its airport can’t really handle the air traffic demand it generates.
San Diego has begun a cooperative venture with Tijuana’s more commodious airport, but that’s not a fully acceptable alternative, which makes an arrangement with Ontario and its extra-long runways and half-empty terminals something worth pursuing.
A truly creative approach would be to persuade Gov. Jerry Brown, who yearns to build a bullet train, to dump, or at least delay, the half-baked project he’s now pushing and substitute a bullet train along the I-15 corridor linking Ontario with San Diego.
It would benefit the air-travel needs of both regions and serve commuter and other surface-travel demands of inland Southern California, which is one of the state’s fastest-growing regions.
There’s a win-win deal to be made here, if everyone involved is willing to make it.