Liset Márquez, Staff Writer
Created: 05/10/2012 09:11:14 AM PDT

ONTARIO – There are two entrenched sides in the L.A./Ontario International Airport ownership saga.

Ontario officials contend regaining local control of the airport could reverse a five-year trend that has seen passenger traffic increasingly drop.

Officials from Los Angeles World Airports, which owns and operates ONT, said they believe the airport will improve once the Inland Empire economy bounces back.

But these competing visions are having an adverse impact on passenger traffic and part of the blame rests with Ontario, according to one airline expert.

“As negative as the dialogue is in the Inland Empire, it has an effect on the expectation of the customers of what they are going to see in Ontario,” said Edward Shelswell-White, an airline industry expert and consultant to LAWA.

Shelswell-White was alluding to Ontario’s public relations campaign – Set ONTario Free – that endorses local control of the airport.

ONT saw about 4.2million passengers in 2011, figures not seen since the late 1980s. It’s a drastic decline from the peak traffic of 7.2million in 2007.

Ontario officials have even gone so far in recent months to voice concern about ONT shutting down if passenger traffic doesn’t improve.

That perception, said Shelswell-White, who has been tasked by the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners to look at ONT’s marketing situation, is having a negative effect on the mindset of customers and is creating a turbulent environment for airlines at ONT.

“There’s little confidence that the situation will get better,” Shelswell-White said. “In the minds of our target customers, they don’t see a competing vision that they believe.”

Shelswell-White gave an update on Monday to the airport commission, a seven-member civilian board that governs LAWA airports such as ONT and Los Angeles International Airport.

An airline industry expert for two decades, Shelswell-White said there isn’t a strong enough brand identity at ONT to allow it to thrive.

Discussing marketing strategies that could turn things around at the struggling airport, Shelswell-White has suggested the board consider a rebranding effort.

Ontario’s public relations campaign is not the sole factor in driving down passenger traffic, Shelswell-White said.

He also noted the economy and a switch in how airlines do business.

“Right now, the only vision out there is in order to fix Ontario, it has to revert to local control until we are able to show them a vision of how to make Ontario succeed,” Shelswell-White said.

Ontario City Manager Chris Hughes said he was not convinced that his city’s plan is a factor.

“Based on what facts can (Shelswell-White) make that statement?” Hughes said. “Our PR campaign only started a few months and passenger traffic, since ’07, has been declining and is expected to decline through October.”

Set ONTario Free was launched by Ontario at the start of 2012.

More than 80 cities, organizations and elected officials have passed resolutions backing the city’s efforts to wrest control of the airport from Los Angeles, Hughes said.

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