By Art Marroquin Staff Writer
Created: 06/30/2011 08:25:49 PM PDT

For decades, Los Angeles World Airports had managed a relatively happy family, leading four airports under a single banner.

But that relationship has fractured in recent years amid allegations that LA/Ontario International Airport and two smaller siblings are neglected while all the attention is lavished on the agency’s breadwinner, Los Angeles International Airport.

LAWA finds itself embroiled in a custody dispute with community leaders in Ontario, Palmdale and Van Nuys, who believe they can bring their respective airports back to prosperity.

While there isn’t an outright call to break up the agency, stakeholders living near LAWA’s outlying airports are seeking a semblance of local control, rather than allowing the shots to be called by executives based at LAX.

“We already feel like the stepchildren of LAWA because we’re the only general aviation airport in the family, so it doesn’t feel like our concerns are understood,” said Don Schultz, a longtime member of the Van Nuys Airport Citizens Advisory Council.

“It just makes good sense to have local control of the airports,” Schultz said. “Without local control, you’re at the mercy of an agency that focuses 99 percent of its time on the airport that makes the most money.”

Efforts to gain local oversight of LAWA’s smaller airports appear to be gaining momentum.

Ontario officials have for some time sought to take over ONT, saying they could operate it more efficiently than could LAWA.

After nearly three years of negotiations, Palmdale Regional Airport will likely be transferred this summer to the city of Palmdale.

Last week, an alliance of nearly two dozen San Fernando Valley neighborhood councils called for a study to examine whether an independent panel should oversee Van Nuys Airport, taking direct control away from the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners.

But the simple desire to operate an airport is vastly different from having the ability to operate one, said Michael Collins, communications director for LAWA.

“It’s not surprising that a local interest would want to have things get better, especially when the economy is rough,” Collins said. “Frankly, I can’t think of any local entity that has the level of skill, financial capacity or experience to operate these airports other than Los Angeles World Airports.”

Regional flights languish

Palmdale and Ontario airports were viewed as part of LAWA’s regional plan to shift flights from LAX to other Southern California airports.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had promised to make the idea of “regionalism” one of his priorities during his successful run for mayor in 2005, but critics say the idea has fallen by the wayside.

Efforts to launch regular commercial service at Palmdale never took off, while the national recession has caused air traffic to drop more than 30 percent over the past few years at Ontario airport.

“Those airports are important assets that the city wants to be successful, and LAWA works hard to ensure that success,” mayoral spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said.

Despite that promise for success, Palmdale Mayor James Ledford has expressed years of frustration with LAWA’s failure to retain a major airline at Palmdale Regional Airport.

A total of eight carriers have attempted to launch service from Palmdale since 1971, but each pulled out after a brief run.

Palmdale facility dormant

The final straw for Ledford came in December 2008, when United Airlines canceled daily flights between Palmdale and San Francisco due to a lack of demand. The small Antelope Valley airport has remained dormant ever since.

The airport’s terminal, taxiways and parking lot sit on property owned by the Air Force, while the city of Los Angeles owns 17,500 acres of surrounding property.

While a management transfer is close to being finalized in Palmdale, a similar deal might not be so easy for ONT.

The city of Los Angeles assumed management of the Ontario airport in 1967, mostly to serve as an alternate landing site when it was too foggy for jetliners to land at LAX.

Over time, commercial service grew along with the Inland Empire’s population, prompting the city of Los Angeles to purchase ONT in 1985 to build a pair of new terminals for $270 million.

Unlike Palmdale, passenger service and demand grew at ONT, which saw a peak of 7 million travelers in 2007. But like many midsize airports across the country, Ontario airport has not recovered from a recession-fueled loss of flights and passengers.

“I can’t figure out anything L.A. gets out of Ontario airport other than to control the local competition and intentionally drive traffic back to LAX,” said Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner, who waged his city’s fight last year to gain control of the airport from LAWA.

Wapner’s effort was fueled in February, when state Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga introduced a bill that calls for creating an Inland Empire-based authority to negotiate a transfer plan for ONT. The state Senate has approved the measure, but it was delayed this week by Dutton while negotiations between LAWA and Ontario resume.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles City Council opposed Dutton’s bill and vowed to protect its asset. Before a transfer back to the Inland Empire can take place, Los Angeles city officials want to know the fate of 300 ONT employees who work for LAWA.

L.A. wants Ontario to pay

Additionally, city leaders want assurances that a management transfer would “satisfactorily compensate” LAWA’s investments in the airport, including the new terminals.

“Any transfer that did not acknowledge the value of this as a city asset, absent of a sale, is not on the table,” said LAWA spokesman Collins.

Wapner said his city shouldn’t have to pay anything to regain control of Ontario airport. Previous improvements, including the new terminals, were funded by a mix of bonds paid by airlines that operated at ONT, along with passenger fees collected by airlines that served both LAX and ONT, he said.

Despite that, Wapner said his city approached Villaraigosa’s office three months ago with a “significant monetary offer” worth “tens of millions of dollars” for ONT. Wapner declined to disclose the exact amount because his city is attempting to restart negotiations with LAWA.

Villaraigosa’s office said the city of Ontario has not made an offer to buy the airport, but noted that LAWA is “engaging in ongoing conversations” for the facility.

“The only reason we made an offer was because we want to expedite this process,” Wapner said. “The local economy is going down day by day in Ontario, and this airport is our main economic engine.”

Along with a fight over its two commercial airports, LAWA is also facing a challenge to retain Van Nuys Airport, the agency’s sole general aviation facility.

Van Nuys seeks control

Van Nuys had once proudly held the title as the nation’s busiest general aviation airport, but was eclipsed in recent years by Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix.

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