LAWA's director says Ontario taking over airport won't improve its prospects
DIAMOND BAR - A lively discussion about LA/Ontario International Airport, which was supposed to focus on the medium-hub facility's importance to the region's economy, quickly turned into a debate on the merits of local control.
For more than an hour Wednesday, a five-member panel discussed a bevy of issues and circumstances facing ONT at the Four Corners Coalition 2012 Economic Summit at the Diamond Bar Center.
The discussion pitted Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports - which manages ONT - against proponents of local control, including Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner. Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge, Michael Armstrong with Southern California Association of Governments, and Denny Schneider, whose group Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion has long battled LAWA over Los Angeles International Airport's growth, also participated.
"It is silly that we are fighting with each other over who owns the airport, we ought to be leaning in together and figuring a path forward on how to make this airport thrive in a very challenging economy," Lindsey said in a stern voice.
But Lindsey went on to warn those pushing for Ontario to regain operations of the airports.
"Local control, in and out of itself, is not going to be a panacea," she said.
For this year, month-over-month, ONT has lost between 4 and 7 percent in air traffic, Lindsey said. The economy, however, is not a reflection of that drop, rather it's a shift in the way airlines do business, she said.
Addressing the continued decline in ONT passenger traffic figures, Lindsey said airlines are retreating from smaller hub facilities like ONT.
"So what is it that we should be doing different together? Let the local versus L.A. control of the airport, let that battle fight itself out, but, in the meantime, we ought to be working together to see what we can do to stem exodus," she said.
Wapner, who met Lindsey for the first time at the spirited discussion, said he saw it differently. Calling LAWA an absentee landlord, Wapner argued Ontario's motives in getting involved in the local control effort.
The interest that the city has isn't about any financial gain, it's in the region which could have seen a $20 million economic boost if passenger traffic was up, Wapner said.
"I want to commend Gina Marie because I think she is doing an excellent job as the executive director of Los Angeles World Airport," he said, adding that she is doing her job, given to her by the policymakers in Los Angeles, which is to get the expansion completed of Tom Bradley Terminal International at LAX.
"Unfortunately, it's been at the expense of Ontario."
ONT has long been viewed by officials in Ontario as the region's largest economic engine.
City officials said they are fighting to regain control not only to stop the hemorrhaging of passenger traffic but to control their economic destiny.
Michael Armstrong, who handles the transportation and aviation issues for Southern California Association of Governments, presented figures in Ontario's favor.
Using factors developed by a regional economic impact study completed for SCAG in 2004, Armstrong said ONT was on pace to reach 31 million annual passengers by 2030. It's also a figure the agency is continuing to forecast for the airport in its latest study.
"It would no doubt be a tremendous economic boom to the Inland Empire," he said.
According to the forecast, had Ontario continued to grow, it would have generated a projected 134,000 of direct and indirect jobs and injected about $20 billion into the local economy, he said.
Calling ONT an important piece of the overall aviation puzzle for Southern California, Lindsey said it also remains a very important and long-term strategic asset for LAWA.
"I understand the sentiment and concern, and I think we are the easy target - we may have even done some things that made us an easy target. Our intent is absolutely to see this airport thrive," Lindsey said.
Officials in Los Angeles are focusing on airlines, and trying to provide more seats and more routes but have not been successful, she said.
The situation at ONT is not rare, she said, adding that airports up north are facing similar predicaments.
Airlines, in response to a decade of losing profits and facing very high and unpredictable costs for fuel, have consolidated their operations so there are now fewer flights. Airlines are also only serving predictable profitable markets such as LAX.
"We need to aggressively manage our way through," Lindsey said. "All is not lost - there is a way through this. We need to have patience, if the city is unhappy (with) what we are doing to promote this airport, we would welcome their assistance," she said.
While it may be true that airlines have changed the way they do business, Wapner said there is one major factor that goes against ONT.
"Ontario is the most expensive airport in the country, of airports its size, for airlines to do business," he said, making a case for local control.
By having the city of Ontario or a regional authority oversee ONT, more can be done for airlines such as developing the dilapidated buildings next to the airport. If those are developed it would help bring in revenues to the medium-hub airport and bring down costs for airlines, Wapner said.
There's another role that the airport plays, which is its importance in Southern California's transportation system, he said. A settlement between LAX and its neighboring cities several years ago set a constraint on airport growth to 78 million passengers until 2020, Wapner said.
"All the other airports in the region are constrained except Ontario," he pointed.
Rather than gain traffic, ONT has seen a drop of nearly 3 million passengers since 2007, causing a $495 million economic hit to the Inland Empire. The decline at ONT in the past four years has also meant a loss of 9,250 jobs to the region, Wapner said.
At the same time, the drop in passengers has had a negative impact on the environment, increasing the amount of car trips from the Inland Valley to Los Angeles by 1.3 million a year.
Despite the current loss of passengers, a new report by SCAG still anticipates ONT will reach 30 million passengers by 2030. The same report forecasted LAX to remain at 78 million annual passengers a year.
But Wapner said LAWA officials contested the figure for LAX, saying they expect the constraints on the airport to end during that period. According to Wapner, LAWA expects LAX's passenger traffic to grow in that time frame upward to 114 million.
However, the Federal Aviation Administration has also released its own projections for ONT, which predicts the airport will only have about 6.5 million passengers by 2030, Wapner said.
"If you do the math, if they go an extra 30, that's the 30 million passengers Ontario is suppose to gain," he said. "Now we understand what's going on. There's no intent for Ontario to grow, the intent is for LA to grow and not maximize Ontario."