After years of rhetoric about the need to redirect growth in air travel from LAX, efforts are finally moving forward under Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to grow both passenger and cargo traffic at Ontario International Airport.
Los Angeles World Airports, the L.A. city-run body that oversees both airports, has expanded its broadcast media marketing campaign for Ontario, using ads on Internet booking sites to target business travelers looking to avoid the hassles of Los Angeles International Airport.
Meanwhile, airport officials are about to consider a plan, long in the works, to greatly expand cargo handling facilities at Ontario. A $125 million proposal put forward by airport property developer Aeroterm would add 1 million square feet of cargo handling space at the airport, enough to process loads from an additional 15 to 20 planes at one time.
"This is all about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to regionalize air traffic," said Mark Thorpe, director of air service marketing for the airport agency. "For the last three years, we've been trying to spread out air passenger traffic through our media campaign. Now, we're looking to spread out air cargo traffic with this new facility."
Ontario Airport has long been the linchpin of efforts to regionalize air traffic as opposition to expanding LAX has intensified. Three of the four other local airports - Bob Hope in Burbank; Long Beach; and John Wayne in Orange County - are all hemmed in by development and have hard passenger and/or flight caps that make them virtually impossible to expand.
Los Angeles also owns Palmdale Airport but it's too far away to appeal to most L.A. County businesses and residents and has had a hard time getting off the ground. Late last year, one air carrier, Scenic Airlines, abandoned a short-lived effort to run passenger service from Palmdale to Las Vegas.
The only other regional possibility, converting the closed U.S. Marine base at El Toro in Orange County was taken off the table when voters there decided to turn it into a park.
Ontario Airport, on the other hand, is the only area facility with room to expand and with nearby residents that mostly favor airport growth. With little opposition, the airport agency built a new terminal in the late 1990s to accommodate more passengers.
But the growth has been slow thanks to a classic "chicken-and-egg" syndrome: Major domestic and international carriers have been slow to add flights out of Ontario because of a lack of passengers, but more passengers won?t come until there?s a much broader selection of flights.
Plans to market Ontario as a less-crowded alternative to LAX stalled for years, but restarted three years ago with $1.2 million in annual broadcast and print-media buys. Last month, airport officials kicked off the annual spring campaign, this time with an Internet component. The main target: business travelers, especially those at companies with employees living east of the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway in the San Gabriel Valley.
The marketing campaign has paid off - to a point. Last year, Ontario Airport saw 7.1 million passengers, up 4 percent from 2004.
"That's a fairly average rate of growth for local airports, not the kind of growth we would like to see coming from Ontario," said Michael Armstrong, lead regional planner for aviation with the Southern California Association of Governments, who believes more needs to be done to get air travelers to use Ontario, especially on the ground side.
"It's still way too difficult for people in the core air travel market - the western part of Los Angeles and Orange counties - to get to Ontario," he said.
The planning agency views a high-speed rail link between L.A. and Ontario as the main long-term alternative. But in the short run, Armstrong said the agency is working with Los Angeles airport and local transit officials to explore the option using Metrolink and lots in central L.A. with buses running to and from Ontario.