11:02 PM PDT on Wednesday, September 1, 2010

By KIMBERLY PIERCEALL and DUG BEGLEY
The Press-Enterprise

PDF: SCAG letter to LAWA

Inland officials are not the only ones clamoring for Los Angeles to cede control of Ontario International Airport. The Southern California Association of Governments, spanning all of Southern California outside San Diego, is poised today to approve a letter urging Los Angeles to give up oversight of the airport.

City and Inland officials have escalated efforts in the past few months to regain control of the airport from Los Angeles.

Upset with massive traffic losses at the airport, one of the costliest for airlines that land there, officials have said the city has been unable or unwilling to lower costs enough and the priority appears to be LAX and its massive rehabilitation. If costs were lowered at Ontario, Inland officials have said it could encourage more airlines to offer competitively priced flights there.

“This is one step in a process,” said Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner. “It is a long process, but one that needs to happen for Ontario (airport) to succeed.”

Long a critic of Los Angeles’ management of Ontario, Wapner said local control is needed to save the airport.

“It appears that Los Angeles has been intentionally mismanaging Ontario,” he said.

Los Angeles World Airports owns and operates Los Angeles International Airport, Van Nuys Airport and Ontario International Airport.

Mike Molina, deputy executive director of external affairs for LAWA, disagreed with Wapner’s characterization.

“Ontario is an important component of LAWA’s overall structure,” Molina said. “I think we have shown that through a $250 million investment into the facility and our continuing efforts to market the airport as a regional option,” he said, referring to the construction of Ontario’s twin terminals.

Molina had read the letter drafted by SCAG on Wednesday and said the agency looked forward to receiving a proposal from the city of Ontario, “and we will review it fully and as quickly as possible,” he said.

Wapner pointed to the exodus of passengers from Ontario during the past four years as evidence that Los Angeles has not supported the airport.

“If we don’t do something, I’m not sure how long we can last,” he said.

In the past few years, as fuel costs rose and a global recession followed, airport traffic dropped across Southern California, even in Los Angeles, but nowhere as severe as at Ontario airport.

If given control, Wapner said the city would likely partner with San Bernardino County to oversee the airport. Specifics of how the airport would be managed, or what terms Los Angeles would demand, can’t be settled until Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signals his support, Wapner said.

The letter from SCAG would be sent to Los Angeles’ city administrative officer, Miguel Santana. The Los Angeles City Council asked in May to study the feasibility of transferring control of the airport to the city of Ontario and report back before Sept. 1.

The report hasn’t been presented yet, and Santana didn’t return a call seeking comment.

“Southern California must continue to have a robust system of regional airports both to accommodate local demand and to minimize automobile traffic and emissions resulting from unnecessary reliance on LAX,” the letter states. “In that regard, it is especially important that (Ontario airport), which is uniquely positioned to accommodate growth, be operated in a way that enables it to achieve its full potential.”

The number of travelers using Ontario airport has dropped 32 percent since 2007 to its lowest levels since 1988.

Since 2008, Ontario airport lost service from JetBlue, Aeromexico and startup airline ExpressJet and saw cuts in capacity at remaining airlines, including the airport’s largest, Southwest Airlines. As more left or scaled back service, the airlines that remained had to pay more per passenger to support operations there.

The cost per enplaned passenger is expected to be $16 at Ontario. That cost is $11 at LAX and even lower at other area airports.

Though SCAG cannot dictate where the region should concentrate air service, it can play a role in encouraging a regional focus, said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of SCAG.

As the region’s planning agency, its support or opposition can be key for receiving federal grants, and its plans to regionalize air travel weigh on local transportation decisions.

Growing all airports likely means control of Ontario should rest with Inland officials, he said.

“The idea of having an entity like LAWA running three airports is a good thing,” Ikhrata said. “But if you have the entity concentrating on one of them, it’s not.”

With millions more Southern Californians expected in the future, spreading air service around needs to start now by increasing passengers at places like Ontario, said Ikhrata.

SCAG estimates for 2030 expected Ontario to handle 30 million passengers, though few believe that is accurate following the economic downturn.

Merely achieving growth short-term will take an oversight change now, Ikhrata said. In a few years, LAX will be nearing its 78 million passenger capacity, and other airports will be in higher demand.

“We cannot afford to wait until we get there,” Ikhrata said.

In early August, LAWA presented a study that considered management options for the Inland airport.

Options included contracting out management of the terminals or parking, or the entire airport to someone else. The city of Ontario and the Inland region were never explicitly named in the report from Jacobs Consultancy, now LeighFisher Inc.

Ontario’s passenger traffic isn’t expected to reach 2008 levels until 2040, according to the report.

Inland officials have said they believe the airport can rebound quicker than that.

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