Van Nuys Airport

Improvements have been completed on the 8,000-foot main runway (16R/34L) at Van Nuys Airport. This marks the largest maintenance project conducted at the airport in over 50 years.(Andy Holzman/Los Angeles Daily News)

By Liset Marquez, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Posted: 01/10/15, 1:52 PM PST | Updated: 37 secs ago

Maybe it was a bad idea from the very beginning.

Fifty years ago, the thought of Los Angeles taking over a small airport in the Inland Empire seemed like a huge win for Ontario. A no-brainer.

But over the past decade, Ontario has pulled out all the stops to get its airport back, accusing Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that manages both LA/Ontario and Los Angeles international airports, of all manner of ineptitude and mismanagement as traffic declines at ONT and grows at LAX.

Industry analysts, however, are not surprised at LAWA’s emphasis on LAX, the agency’s crown jewel.

“Clearly, LAWA’s focus is LAX: They want to make it a temple, make it a premier airport at all costs,” said Jack Keady, president of Keady Transportation Consulting in Playa del Rey.

That was clear last week as Los Angeles officials announced that a recording-breaking 71 million passengers that came through LAX last year on the same day that Ontario officials reported that the decline in air service at ONT since 2008 has cost the local economy $3.6 billion.

The focus on LAX is to be expected, Keady said, noting that it’s rare for a single agency to oversee more than one airport. LAWA’s priority is naturally going to be LAX, he said, especially in a bad economy when all airports are scrambling for passengers.

Indeed, LAWA’s initial charge when it was founded in 1928 was to turn LAX, then a fledgling airstrip itself, into a first-class facility.

It wasn’t until 40 years later, in the 1960s, that the idea of a regionalized airport plan began to take shape as Ontario officials lobbied Los Angeles to take over its airport.

That agreement was not easy to obtain, according to Sam Crowe, the former Ontario councilman and city attorney who negotiated the 1967 deal between Ontario and Los Angeles.

“It was a hard sell,” Crowe said. “They weren’t anxious to take over our airport.”

Now, however, the tables have turned as Ontario seeks to regain control of ONT, blaming LAWA’s management for declines in passenger traffic and flights.

LAWA, on the other hand, is reluctant to let go of ONT, arguing that it has done all it could to support ONT in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

In fact, LAWA officials, faced with a lawsuit in which the Ontario International Airport Authority seeks to force LAWA to return control of ONT to Ontario, are reluctant to say anything at all.

In June 2013, Ontario filed a lawsuit aiming to rescind or reform the terms of the 1967 agreement that gave control of the airport to L.A. The claim is still in litigation.

When asked to comment for this story, LAWA spokeswoman Maria Tesoro-Fermin offered the following: “Given the pending litigation, we cannot comment on these specific questions, but we look forward to all the facts being presented in appropriate context and as part of the current adjudication process.”

A LAWA fact sheet offers further insight: “LAWA wants to avoid participation in negative public debate and activities that may create an adverse environment for ONT’s stakeholders and the traveling public ONT serves. The Board of Airport Commissioners has directed staff to concentrate on aggressively managing the airport in light of the current market realities for ONT and focusing on communicating our cost containment successes and air service development efforts with airlines.”

LAWA was initially founded in 1928 as the Los Angeles Department of Airports, its mission to turn the newly founded Los Angeles Municipal Airport into a world class facility.

Seventy years later, the city’s Department of Airports has become Los Angeles World Airports, and that little municipal airport is Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX as it’s more popularly known.

In the intervening years, the Department of Airports evolved slowly. It won its independence, more or less, in 1947, when the city turned the agency over to a five-member commission. The members, of course, would be appointed by the City Council. In 1963, the city gave the department the power to issue revenue bonds. In 2000, the city added two more members to the board.

Over the same period, LAX continued to grow as did its prominence in the aviation industry. The agency’s first expansion came in 1949, when it took over Van Nuys Airport “to accommodate aviation activities unsustainable for Los Angeles Airport,” according to a Dec. 24, 1949 report in the Los Angeles Times.

In 1967, at the request of local leaders, Los Angeles assumed control of the Ontario airport.

Crowe, a central figure in the negotiations that resulted in the transfer, noted that Ontario spent more than a decade courting Los Angeles to take over what was to become ONT.

Ontario officials had been unable to convince airlines to bring flights to Ontario and believed LA had a much better chance growing the airport.

“They could put the pressure on the airlines,” Crowe said. “They had a lot of power.”

Eventually, Los Angeles agreed to manage the Ontario airport in the interest of developing a regional transportation authority, Crowe said.

The goal was public service, not profit, he said.

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