Ontario, Calif., Airport Takeoff Stalls

Feb. 7--ONTARIO -- Though 2005 was a record-setting year for Ontario International Airport, the air field still lags behind others in Southern California in its pace of growth.

ONT's passenger numbers grew by nearly 300,000 to reach 7.2 million last year -- the airport's highest total ever.

That's a good sign for officials with Los Angeles World Airports, which owns and operates ONT. The agency has long touted the airport as a prime location for relieving congestion at LAX, where 61.5 million travelers arrived or departed last year.

"We're very excited about it," said LAWA's Maria Tesoro-Fermin, citing plans by ATA Airlines and AeroMexico to add new flights at ONT as evidence the airport is continuing to grow.

But passenger levels at other airports in Southern California show that ONT still has a way to go before being the region's second airport of choice.

Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, for example, had more than twice the growth of ONT last year, with an increase of 600,000 passengers. Its total for 2005 was 5.5 million passengers.

Similarly, growth at John Wayne Airport in Orange County outstripped ONT's increases over the past several years. Since 2000, that airport increased its annual traffic by 1.8 million. ONT added 500,000 in the same period.

That's not surprising, since the region's population is still concentrated for the most part in Los Angeles and Orange County, said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

"People do have their favorite airports, and the idea of how easy it is to get to that airport matters," Kyser said. "They're trying to drive more traffic to Ontario, but you have people who are midway between ONT and LAX, and I think the natural inclination would be to go to LAX."

Still, while airports such as John Wayne and Bob Hope are growing faster now, neither airport can reasonably handle the kind of traffic anticipated in the future. In Orange County, John Wayne has a court-mandated limit of 10.3 million annual passengers.

There's no regulatory cap at Bob Hope Airport, said spokesman Victor Gill, simply "whatever the intrinsic facilities might do to influence the number of people." Previous plans for building a new passenger terminal at the airport have been scrapped due to opposition from Burbank, and there is little room for expansion because of surrounding development.

That leaves ONT, where planners with the Southern California Association of Governments hope a planned future expansion will allow the airport to handle 30 million annual passengers by the year 2030.

Though the airport was expanded as recently as 1998, airport officials are already at work on a master plan to lengthen existing runways and build a third terminal. Construction will begin once ONT serves 10 million annual passengers for two consecutive years.