Ontario Int'l Hits Snags in Getting Foreign Flights

Oct. 23--Ontario International Airport has lived up to its middle name in only a narrow sense.

The airport hopes to obtain a more significant international role but several obstacles remain, including the strength of the market and customs service.

No scheduled flights leaving Ontario are destined to land outside of North America. A handful of flights each week, all run by Mexican air carriers, head south of the border to Mexico, landing in Mexico City, Cabo San Lucas and, soon, Guadalajara.

Mark Thorpe, director of air-service marketing for the Ontario International Airport, said airport managers are in early discussions with airlines that would establish service to Europe, more of Latin America and Canada.

European service could come from a carrier that would relocate from LAX to the Inland airport, Thorpe said. He declined to name the carrier, saying talks are premature.

Alan Bender, an airline industry expert and professor with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said an airport with Ontario International's profile will struggle to make any significant international connections.

Unlike virtually every airport with connections abroad, Ontario doesn't serve as a hub for connecting passengers. Bender said most passengers arriving in LAX from overseas are connecting to another destination.

"Ontario is a dead end," Bender said. "They lose a significant number of potential passengers right there."

Observers say the Inland Empire's demographic profile could support a healthy array of flights to Latin America, particularly Mexico, by low-cost operations. This week Lineas Aereas Azteca, a 4-year-old Mexican carrier that flies to Mexico City, will add a weekly connection to Los Cabos, Mexico.

Patricia Schwebel, vice president of sales in the U.S. for the airline, said Guadalajara, Mexico, offers a natural fit given that many Mexican Americans in the Inland Empire have family living near that city.

Lineas Aereas Aztecas will fly 136-passenger Boeing 737s on the route.

Meanwhile, AeroMexico may cut back service between Ontario and Mexico. Harrison Liu, a spokesman for the airline, said AeroMexico is considering eliminating a flight to Guadalajara.

Thorpe said Los Angeles World Airports, the city of Los Angeles agency that owns and operates Ontario International Airport as well as LAX and airports in Palmdale and Van Nuys, hopes to extend the operation of a federal inspection station at the airport to allow more international flights to land.

The station, run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, processes international arrivals during limited hours.

Even with the added flight by Lineas Aereas Aztecas, the inspection station won't have to handle more than about 400 passengers aday.

A spokesman for the federal agency said there are no plans to add resources at Ontario.

Thorpe said the center's limited hours add a roadblock to efforts to recruit airlines to Ontario.

While the Inland Empire's population compares favorably with some international gateways, such as Phoenix, Ontario would also have to buck conventional wisdom that there's rarely need for more than one significant international airport in one area.

"The conventional wisdom is that it doesn't work except perhaps with charters or some limited low-price flights," Bender said of secondary airports.

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