Dan Walters

Opinion: L.A., Ontario squabbling over airport

ONTARIO – Ontario International Airport opened two large, modernistic terminals in the late 1990s to improve service in California’s fast-growing “Inland Empire” of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, replacing shabby facilities that would have embarrassed a Third World country.

Oddly, the much-needed new terminals were numbered 2 and 4. Why? Because Los Angeles’ airport system, which had acquired Ontario from the local city government a decade earlier, had an ambitious master plan for at least two more big terminals to be numbered 1 and 3.

Flights and passenger traffic jumped after the new terminals were opened, with the latter hitting a peak of 7.2 million in 2007. ONT, with its ultra-long runways and located at the juncture of two major interstate highways, also became a busy airfreight hub.

This week, however, one would find terminals so bereft of activity that their corridors could be bowling alleys. Fewer than 4 million passengers passed through the airport in 2013, a 46 percent decline from 2007 and a fraction of its capacity.

One reason for the decline is economic. The Inland Empire was hit very hard by California’s housing collapse and the ensuing recession and is still struggling to emerge. Local unemployment rates are well above the state’s number, which is one of the nation’s highest.

As passenger traffic plummeted during the recession, airlines cut back on their flights and it became a downward spiral.

Local civic leaders, however, also contend that Los Angeles airport executives, facing passenger declines at Los Angeles International, propped up the much-larger LAX by consciously starving Ontario of vital marketing support.

The city of Ontario founded the airport in 1941, later turned over operations to Los Angeles and in 1985 transferred ownership. It now wants ONT back and is suing to void the 1985 transfer, backed by other governments in the region.

Los Angeles airport officials are flatly opposed, claiming that ONT faltered only because of the economy.

However, Ontario’s lawyers have some fairly damning internal documents to buttress their claims.

The case is before Riverside Superior Court Judge Gloria Trask, who could rule for either side this week or let Ontario’s suit go to trial.

The irony is that while Ontario has immense unused capacity, 110 miles away, San Diego’s smaller, one-runway airport is bursting at the seams, with more than four times as many passengers as ONT.

San Diego politicians have been unable, despite decades of trying, to find a new airport site capable of handling the transoceanic jumbo jet service it needs to bolster its growing tourism trade.

A high-speed rail connection between San Diego and Ontario along Interstate 15 could solve the problems of both airports. It would be a bullet train worth doing, unlike Gov. Jerry Brown’s $68 billion fantasy.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.