Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
dwalters@sacbee.com
10/30/2014 7:53 PM

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.

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