ONTARIO AIRPORT: City's bid to take reins short on rescue strategy

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April 06--The city of Ontario offered no details on how it would solve two of Ontario International Airport's biggest problems -- rising costs to carriers and plummeting passenger traffic -- according to its proposal to control the airport, obtained this week by The Press-Enterprise through the California Public Records Act.

The city says it wants control of the airport by July 1 and would form an airport authority made up of Ontario representatives, the county of San Bernardino and, perhaps, a representative from the city of Los Angeles.

The three-page draft proposal given to the airport's owner, the city of Los Angeles, in November and later Los Angeles World Airports, bears no signatures and outlines a 15-point strategy for transferring control of the airport to Ontario, not a strategy for managing the airport. In it, the city indicates it would give LAWA revenue to use at LAX if the cost for carriers to do business at the airport is lowered to $5 or less per passenger (now it's $14.50), that it didn't want to own the airport, that the city would get proper certification to run an airport and that LAWA employees at the airport would remain LAWA employees even after the transfer.

The city of Ontario had denied requests to release the proposal.

Ontario airport has lost more than a third of its passenger traffic since 2007, a decline that has concerned city officials and inspired their pursuit to take control of the airport.

LAWA's executive director responded in writing and questioned what advantages, if any, there were to transfer the airport to Ontario, calling the July 1 deadline unlikely and suggested the city of Ontario handle marketing for the airport.

LAWA has owned and managed Ontario airport since 1967 when it was largely used as an overflow airport for LAX. It also owns and operates Los Angeles International Airport as well as Van Nuys Airport and Palmdale Airport. The agency built two terminals for Ontario airport in the late 1990s. The severe drop in passengers prompted Ontario city officials to question the agency's management of the airport, calling it a conflict of interest because LAWA is also concerned with bolstering traffic at LAX.

Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner, who is among those leading the city's effort, said the proposal lacks detail because its management strategy isn't relevant to why Los Angeles should transfer control to Ontario. Instead, he said Los Angeles should be asking itself why it wants to manage an airport 40 miles outside its city limits.

"It really has no nexus to Los Angeles except giving them the ability to control their competition," Wapner said. He described the brief proposal as "starting points for negotiations and discussions," with LAWA, not a final proposal.

The number of passengers using Ontario airport has dropped from 7.2 million in 2007 to 4.8 million in 2009 and 2010, the lowest level of traffic since 1988, a full decade before twin terminals were built with the anticipation of filling them up with 10 million passengers annually.

The city gives no indication that it would pay LAWA to take over the airport and instead concludes the proposal by saying that each side, the city of Ontario and city of Los Angeles, would pay their own expenses associated with the airport's transfer.

Ontario officials also ask that all revenue accounts for the airport, accounts receivable, passenger facility charge fees and other revenue for the airport be handed over to the Inland city upon transfer.

Ontario officials also proposed taking control of LAWA's efforts to seek a third-party airport manager. The proposal asked that LAWA handle that process "promptly" and involve Ontario officials every step of the way.

In a letter to Ontario's city manager dated March 1, LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey offers to let the city take over marketing the airport, but nothing more.

"We do agree that given LAWA's portfolio of responsibilities, it is impossible for our senior management team to devote its full attention to (Ontario airport), just as it is impossible for us to devote our attention exclusively to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or our other two airports," Lindsey wrote.

"This is not a commentary on our commitment to (Ontario airport) or any other part of our operation. It is the nature of managing multiple, complex assets. As a city manager, you face the same issues."

She disagrees with the proposal, calling it "problematic," and wrote that if a binding agreement were to be based on the proposal, it would require "considerably more thought and detail."

Wapner said officials have been meeting with Los Angeles council members and plan to seek federal backing on April 14 during a trip to Washington, D.C.

The city's attorney has also said there may be two or three grounds to sue for control of the airport.

"We're not going to let this go," he said.

Reach Kimberly Pierceall at 951-368-9552 or kpierceall@PE.com

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