Jan. 3--ONTARIO -- Sometime in December, the 7 millionth passenger passed through Ontario International Airport.
No horns blared. No sirens sounded.
But that 7 millionth passenger will not go unnoticed by Ontario city officials, those who run the airport nor the many people and businesses with a vested interest in seeing the two-terminal airport expand. Reaching 7 million passengers is important, but more significant is that the airport has recorded two straight years of record growth, said Mark Thorpe, director of air service marketing for Los Angeles World Airports, the agency which owns and operates ONT.
And that growth for two years means ONT is on its way to even higher passenger numbers, he said.
"It could be double or triple that in the next 10 to 15 years," Thorpe said.
Los Angeles International Airport has only so much more room to grow, and other Southern California airports are reaching their capacity, Thorpe said.
"Ontario is really the answer for airlines that need to expand in this area," Thorpe said. "It will accommodate most of the growth in this region."
Although official numbers have not been released yet, many people who study ONT believe the airport reached its 7 million passenger mark in December.
Through October, ONT had served 6,025,699 passengers an increase of 3.71 percent compared with 2004. If the airport continued that 3.71 percent growth for November and December, ONT would have reached 7.2 million passengers in 2005.
But what may be even more significant for ONT is how fast the airport will grow in the future.
Growing at just a rate of 3.71 percent per year, ONT would reach 10.4 million passengers in 10 years.
But ONT is expected to grow faster than 3.71 percent in the future, said John Husing, a Redlands-based economist who studies the Inland Empire.
"It will accelerate down the road," Husing said.
But getting to 7 million passengers has been a challenge for ONT which has served more than 6 million passengers for more than 10 years.
Getting to 7 million passengers has taken longer than expected at ONT because of the toll the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had on the airline industry.
In 2001, ONT serviced 6.7 million passengers and seemed on its way to reaching 7 million passengers. But after the attacks, that number dropped to 6.5 million people in 2002.
LAWA officials also have had to battle public perceptions that ONT is not located in the Canadian province but is actually a Southern California alternative to Los Angeles. "The Canada confusion still plagues us," said Mary Jane Olhasso, Ontario's economic development director.
LAWA officials have tried to eliminate some of the confusion by referring to ONT as LA-ONT in its media material. The city of Ontario also refers to the airport as LA-ONT on the city's Web site. Airport officials have also had to battle airline executives to get them to notice ONT and the surrounding area, Husing said.
Many executives only look at their airlines and often don't study airports for growth, Husing said.
"They really don't know what's going on in the economy around airports," Husing said.
But that perception is changing, said Thorpe with LAWA.
Many airlines don't have the staff to hire an economist for each region they serve, Thorpe said.
So LAWA officials visit regularly with airline executives and explain the economic and demographics of the Inland Empire, Thorpe said.
"We fill them in with the story of the region," Thorpe said.
And business travelers already know ONT is an alternative to LAX, said Olhasso.
"Real estate executives use Ontario and it is their airport of choice," she said.
Also helping the airport grow is better marketing, Husing said.
This year, LAWA began advertising ONT on billboards in Los Angeles and Orange counties to reach those residents who might have been unaware of the Inland airport.
LAWA executives also began using Internet travel sites to suggest ONT as an alternative compared with LAX or John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
If ONT continues to grow, LAWA executives plan to expand the airport. If the airport serves 10 million passengers per year for two consecutive years, a third terminal will be built.
At some point, ONT is expected to reach 30 million passengers and have five terminals.
The best part about ONT's growth in recent years is that it comes at a time when the airline industry has struggled, Thorpe said. As things improve in the airline industry, ONT can only grow faster, he said.
"As rosier things come about, we're going to be in a good position," Thorpe said.