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REGION: Fight over Ontario International Airport goes federal

May 25, 2012

Ontario tried the carrot, offering $50 million to the city of Los Angeles if it will transfer Ontario International Airport back to local control.

Now Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, is wielding the stick: Transfer the airport in 60 days, his bill says, or lose $75 million in federal funding.

No word yet from LA.

Baca also sent a letter last week to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asking for a face-to-face meeting to work out "a fair solution for all parties involved."

At issue is the struggling Inland airport — owned and operated by Los Angeles — that has been losing passengers, airlines and flights steadily since 2007, while LAX has been gaining.

Passengers at Ontario are down from a high of 7.2 million in 2007 to an expected 4.2 million this year — the fewest since the late 1980s.

Republican congressmen Ken Calvert and Jerry Lewis last fall began pressing for Los Angeles to reverse ONT’s decline, seeking help from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and LA city officials.

Now they’re working on the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency Baca’s bill would require to withhold funds if the transfer of ONT doesn’t move quickly.

Los Angeles World Airports gets about $75 million a year from the FAA to help it run LAX, ONT and Van Nuys airports.

Losing that much money would hurt, so if Baca’s bill gains support, it could be a pretty effective stick.

Nothing else has seemed to budge LA so far.

LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey insists it doesn’t make a difference who owns ONT, the airport will suffer until the economy turns around and airlines return to secondary airports.

So why was Palm Springs, a secondary airport, able to lure Virgin America to begin service to San Francisco and New York last year?

Why are John Wayne and Long Beach both expanding? They’re secondary airports.

And why did American Airlines recently announce that it will begin flying from Reagan National Airport, Washington D.C.’s secondary airport, to LAX?

Calvert told me he used to be able to fly nonstop out of ONT to D.C., and the planes were full.

"I wonder if LA even attempted to get that (service) from Reagan to Ontario," he said. "They would fill that (flight) up. The answer is no, they do not market Ontario."

Baca said he received overwhelmingly positive feedback from people in the Inland Empire to his bill to withhold FAA funding from LA if it doesn’t quickly return ONT to local control.

"I am hopeful this legislation will serve as a catalyst for further dialogue," he said on Friday by email.

Lewis was unavailable for comment. His spokesman, Jim Specht, said Lewis and Calvert are talking to the FAA to see what authority, if any, the agency has over who controls ONT.

An LA City Council committee asked the city administrator to review Ontario’s offer and report back in June on whether it’s fair.

Will all these efforts come together and put ONT back in local hands? Keep your fingers crossed.

Cassie MacDuff can be reached at 951-368-9470 or cmacduff@PE.com or facebook.com/PE.CassieMacDuff