An interesting dichotomy was observable in recent news coverage of the utilization of the two major airports owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles. On the one hand, in a recent story, the Los Angeles Times reported that the City of Los Angeles’ Board of Airport Commissioners, the administrative agency charged with overseeing the operation of the City’s airports, is considering closing one of the two terminals at Ontario International Airport (located in the City of Ontario, but operated by Los Angeles World Airports (“LAWA”)). The stated reason was that Ontario has lost one-third of its peak 7.2 million passengers from 2007 to 2010, putting Ontario “on track to have as many passengers as it saw in 1987.” On the other hand, a story in the Los Angeles Business Journal touts passenger increases at LAX of between 3% and 10% over the period April through October, 2011. What the latter story does not do is venture an analysis of the potential causes of this enormous disparity.

Despite the economic downturn, there is still potential ridership, for Ontario, not only in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, but also in Northern Orange County and parts of San Diego County that are closer to Ontario than to the coastal airports of John Wayne Airport and San Diego International Airport, located in their own counties.

Even a moderate degree of analysis reveals the true cause of the disparity: favorable treatment of LAX by the City of Los Angeles, to the severe detriment of Ontario’s future. For example, despite its facial commitment to “regionalization” of air traffic, i.e., the dispersion of passengers among the various airports in the region, affirmed in its settlement of a case brought by various impacted parties in 2004, City of El Segundo, et al. v. City of Los Angeles, et al., LAWA has apparently enticed air carriers to move to LAX by lower costs and fees, in order to pay the cost of its major, ongoing expansion project.

Ontario is left the orphan, saddled with hefty City employee contractual obligations; a $4.50 per passenger Passenger Facility Charge; and among the highest per passenger costs in the entire region, with little or no marketing effort by LAWA during the past three years to ameliorate these disparities.

What is clear from a comparative analysis of the passenger traffic at the two venues is that LAWA’s defense, i.e., “there won’t be any net growth until you see the economy bounce back,” is without a cognizable basis. If the economy were the controlling factor, LAX would also be experiencing a decline, or at least less growth. That LAX is booming is proof positive of the views of Inland Empire officials who have taken the consistent position that “LAWA which operates both LAX and Ontario has become an absentee landlord bent on completing a multi-billion dollar modernization of LAX at the expense of its weaker stepchild and potential competitor 56 miles to the east.”