Gavel

Sunday, January 25, 2015 – 10:30 a.m.

Ontario took a hit in its lawsuit to wrestle away control of Ontario International Airport last week.

A Riverside County Superior Court judge rejected an argument by the Ontario that two agreements, made in 1967 and 1985, giving Los Angeles Control of the airport’s operation were not properly consummated, and therefore invalid.

The ruling is a blow to an untimely, but powerful, argument raised by Ontario to nullify the arrangement.

What remains of Ontario’s lawsuit is essentially three causes of action, which boil down to a breach of contract argument.

If the case gets to a jury trial, and that’s still a big if, the question will fall to what duties, articulated in writing, did Los Angeles have to perform to market the airport? And did Los Angeles breach those agreed-to obligations? Or was the weak economy at fault?

Ontario officials would very much like to blame Los Angeles for all of the airport’s woes. But the great recession, combined with airline belt-tightening, played a big role in Ontario’s decline. Other regional airports across the nation suffered comparable, or even worse, passenger drop off during the same period. Something all the Inland Empire talking heads won’t acknowledge.

In other words, the airlines reduced the number of flight offerings at regional airports, increased the number of flights at hubs, in order to fill as many seats per flight as possible.

Unlike his predecessor, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has expressed a desire to transfer the airport back to local control, with the caveat that Los Angeles be made whole on any money it invested in the facility. For the purposes of this argument, this would be any expense (operational or capital improvement) in excess of passenger fees and federal funding. An amount likely not in line with a previous Los Angeles estimate of $500 million.

Ontario would also have to assume responsibility for all related airport debt.

But that was Garcetti’s position prior to last weeks court ruling. Whether his position will change with the strength of their legal hand remains yet to be seen.

The lawsuit still must still survive another likely dismissal motion.

I was checking flight to the east coast in recent weeks and couldn’t help notice that flights originating from Ontario were in line with those from LAX, and less than flights out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

Look at the airport as more like a utility, not an amenity. As the economy has incrementally improved, so has Ontario’s passenger traffic. How far that improvement will go is anyone’s guess.