Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times
There's no compelling reason for Los Angeles to keep running an airport so far away.
March 10, 2011
Not all the turbulence in the local air travel world is in the skies; there's quite a bit of it in the relationship between the cities of Ontario, where officials are fighting for control of their regional airport, and Los Angeles, where the agency that runs Los Angeles International Airport seems determined to hold on to the Inland Empire facility. It's a complicated issue, but we can't see a compelling reason for L.A. to keep running an airport so far away.
No one denies that Ontario International Airport is hurting badly. The number of passengers is down by nearly 30% since 2007, and the drop in traffic is damaging the local economy. The key question is why. Those who support the status quo maintain that the downturn is a function of the economic slump, which hit the Inland Empire particularly hard. But Ontario officials blame managers at Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that also runs LAX and Van Nuys Airport.
They point out that Ontario Airport has extraordinarily high operating costs because it employs far more people than comparably sized facilities and, under L.A. labor rules, pays them more. As a result, Ontario must charge airlines the highest per-passenger fees in the region and among the highest in the country; at LAX, the cost per passenger is $11, and the U.S. median is $6.76, yet it's a whopping $14.50 at Ontario. What's more, the airport agency slashed Ontario's marketing budget.
Although Los Angeles World Airports is considering bids from private operators vying to take over day-to-day management of Ontario Airport, a staff report obtained by The Times makes it clear that managers don't favor ceding control to Ontario. A PowerPoint presentation created for the agency's board said marketing functions might be transferred to Ontario, but otherwise, managers see no reason to give more power to "a jurisdiction that has no experience in managing a commercial airport."
This might all seem like a minor spat between regional powers, but the decisions will have repercussions. Consider the case of a low-cost airline currently operating out of LAX, where landing fees are likely to rise to pay for capital improvements. If it can get a better deal at Ontario, it might transfer flights there and at least stay in Southern California. But if there's no competitive airport, it's more likely to leave the region entirely, taking economic benefits with it. A healthy Ontario Airport is in everybody's interest, and although L.A. wage rules are fine for LAX, it's not fair to impose them on another city where living conditions differ. Los Angeles gains little by continuing its hold on Ontario's airport, but it has something to lose.