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AIRPORT: Bill gives LA 60 days to give up Ontario

May 18, 2012

The city of Los Angeles would have 60 days to hand off Ontario International Airport to a local authority or risk losing its Federal Aviation Administration funding, under legislation introduced Friday, May 18, by Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto.

Los Angeles World Airports, a city department, owns and operates LAX, Ontario and Van Nuys airports.

Traffic has dropped by a third since 2007 at the Inland airport, which led officials in Ontario and San Bernardino County to accuse LAWA of neglecting it in favor of LAX, the sixth busiest airport in the world.

Baca said he penned the bill after growing frustrated over LAWA’s failure to arrive at an arrangement to shift control of the airport into local hands.

"It just seems like there’s a lot of delay tactics," he said Friday. "We’ve been doing this for almost a year and a half now."

Pending state legislation held up in committee would create a local airport authority, and two of Baca’s Republican colleagues have reached out to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood directly. The city of Ontario and San Bernardino County, meanwhile, have launched a campaign to "SetONTarioFree," rallying Southern California municipalities to support the effort to put a local authority in charge of the airport and recruiting former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to be a spokesman for their cause.

LAWA, in turn, has blamed Ontario’s condition on the recession and lingering economic malaise.

LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey said Baca’s proposal overlooked trends in the aviation industry and wouldn’t help the airport’s recovery.

"Local control, in and of itself, is not going to be a cure-all for what ails (Ontario)," she said in an emailed statement.

An aviation business expert with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University called the legislation ridiculous.

"I don’t think a gun at their heads is gonna work," said professor Alan Bender. "I honestly believe this is just more of a desperation move or threat to get this issue on the front-burner."

The argument that Ontario is being held prisoner by LAWA or that "LAX is the shiny new car in the driveway and Ontario is the clunker in the backyard being used for spare parts," he said, isn’t grounds to take away LAWA’s FAA funding.

LAWA received about $75.2 million last year in federal and other government grants and $80.9 million the year before, according to the agency’s last annual financial report.

Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA, said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

The 60-day time limit would start with the bill’s enactment. If the city didn’t transfer the airport within that time, a commission made up of members chosen by LAWA, the city of Ontario and the FAA would determine the fair market value of the airport. LAWA would then be forced to sell it to a local authority for that price, according to a statement from Baca.

Baca said the bill’s hard-line approach is intentional.

"I decided to step it up another notch," he said. "Sometimes it’s time to be a bulldog, in this case because of what it means for our area."

Despite the threat of lost FAA funding for LAX, Baca said he expects to receive support from Los Angeles-area members of Congress.

"I don’t see them working against us," he said, arguing that LAX is already too busy and often difficult for motorists to access because of traffic congestion. "They’re overcrowded as it is."

Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, and Janice Hahn, D-San Pedro, who represent areas near the airport, could not be reached Friday for comment on the bill.

Baca said he would also look to his fellow Inland area House members for support.

Inland area Reps. Ken Calvert and Jerry Lewis have also been supporters of local control, and have had talks with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, along with officials from LAWA and the FAA, about how to achieve a transfer of management.

Calvert, R-Corona, said he welcomed Baca’s effort.

Jim Specht, a spokesman for Lewis, said the Redlands Republican echoed those sentiments but said "it is not clear that legislation is the best course of action for a resolution of the problem." He did not elaborate.

Ontario city officials were unaware of the bill’s specific aims on Friday and hadn’t been consulted before Baca introduced it, said Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner, who has been leading the effort by the city to regain control of the airport.

"We’re looking forward to discussing it with him, and we certainly appreciate his support," Wapner said.

Wapner said the city is still confident of reaching a resolution with the city of Los Angeles without federal or state legislation.

Since March, the city of Los Angeles’ chief administrative officer has been reviewing the value of the airport and whether to consider a $50 million cash offer from the city of Ontario. That report is due by the end of June.

"We haven’t run out of patience yet," Wapner said. But if there’s no resolution by the end of June, Wapner said the city would elicit lawmaker support.

A state bill that would create a local airport authority was introduced last year by Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. The bill passed the Senate, and Dutton has held it in an Assembly committee at the request of Ontario’s city leaders while they work with the city of Los Angeles.

When told what Baca’s bill entailed, Wapner said it mischaracterized at least one thing: the idea that Ontario could have a market value. The FAA doesn’t allow public airports to be bought or sold, he said. The city of Ontario’s $50 million cash offer is to dissolve the existing joint powers agreement that gave LAWA control of the airport, he said.

The city of Los Angeles has managed the airport since 1967 and assumed ownership in 1985.