In an anticipated, but no less surprising move, the City Council of the City of Los Angeles (“Los Angeles”) agreed to transfer Ontario International Airport (“ONT”), currently owned and operated by Los Angeles, to the Ontario International Airport Authority (“OIAA”) and its members which include the City of Ontario (“Ontario”). The transfer occurs in settlement of a currently pending lawsuit in the Riverside County Superior Court in which Ontario, the OIAA, and other parties challenged the legal right of Los Angeles to ownership and operation of ONT.
Reliever airports, once touted as the solution to major metropolitan airport congestion and its environmental impacts on surrounding communities are now facing daunting financial and competitive challenges from the very same airports they were supposed to relieve.
Reliever airports, defined as “general aviation airports in major metropolitan areas that provide pilots with attractive alternatives to using congested hub airports,” Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) Advisory Circular 150/5070-6B, Appendix A, Glossary, were typically developed to occupy a market niche in their local regions. For years, they succeeded in their task. Since 2009, however, reliever airports throughout the country have lost substantial proportions of their passengers to the major urban airports. In Southern California alone, reliever airports such as Ontario International Airport (“ONT”) and Long Beach Airport (“LGB”) have seen massive reductions in their passenger counts. Now these airports are forced to take drastic steps to remain viable.
The recently published Southern California Association of Governments (“SCAG”) Draft Regional Transportation Plan 2012-2035, Sustainable Communities Strategy (“Draft RTP”) is a study in contrasts. The Draft RTP is meant to be a roadmap to “increasing mobility for the region’s residents and visitors.” Draft RTP, p. 1. Its “vision” purportedly “encompasses three principles that collectively work as the key to our region’s future: mobility, economy and sustainability.” Draft RTP, p. 1. SCAG’s jurisdiction falls largely into compartments: (1) surface transportation such as roadways and rail; and (2) aviation. SCAG has funding authority over the former, but none over the latter.
The purpose of the Draft RTP is to portray transportation from a broader regional, rather than merely local, perspective. On the one hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of surface transportation growth estimates, trends and proposed policies for the Southern California Region to the year 2035 contains relatively sophisticated and substantially complete analysis and projections that meet its goals. On the other hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of aviation trends and policies for meeting airport demand is reminiscent of a high school science project.
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.
The Los Angeles Times reports that, while economic conditions are slowly improving throughout most of the nation, including most of California, California’s Inland Empire, comprised of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties is not so fortunate. The Times reports that the volume of home sales in San Bernardino County dropped 18.3% from last June, and in Riverside County 14.7%. Similarly, jobs fell throughout the Inland Empire in sectors such as leisure and hospitality (minus 3,200 jobs in June) and educational and health services (minus 1,300 positions in June). Finally, the region lost 3,900 construction jobs over the year, and more than 75,000 since the peak of construction in June, 2006.
As part of the solution to this ongoing problem, the City of Ontario and County of San Bernardino have joined together to negotiate a return of Ontario International Airport (“ONT”), operated by the City of Los Angeles through its Airport Department, L.A. World Airports (“LAWA”) since 1967, to local control. ONT has, consistent with the condition of the local economy, seen an approximate 30% decrease in operations since 2007.
The City of Los Angeles (“Los Angeles”) went on record yet again, rebuffing a cooperative effort between the City of Ontario (“Ontario”) and County of San Bernardino (“San Bernardino”) to promote growth at Ontario International Airport (“ONT”). The Los Angeles City Council formally voted to oppose SB466, introduced earlier this year by Senator Bob Dutton, which would allow for structured negotiations regarding the transfer of ONT to a newly formed joint powers agency comprised of Ontario and San Bernardino. The rationale for the legislation is that ONT has proportionally suffered the worst loss of passengers and airline operations of any airport in the Southern California region, and that a shift to local control is needed to restart what had previously been considered the economic engine for the Inland Empire.
The citizens of Newport Beach read with interest the front page article in the Orange County newspaper, the Daily Pilot, a subsidiary of the Los Angeles Times, of July 10, 2011, concerning this weekend’s air show at the Orange County “Great Park.” They looked with even greater consternation at the remarks of one of the attendees who stated “Airplanes in general have been a fascination for people . . . these days you don’t see them flying around as much. And when you have a chance to see them up close and personal it’s a good reason to come out.” Where has this guy been living for the last 15 years – under a rock?
The Federal Aviation Administration’s most recent forecast of future airline passengers at the region’s airports is an eye opener. In the forecast year 2030, FAA is projecting 49.3 million enplanements (98.6 million total passengers) at Los Angeles International Airport; 3 million enplanements (6 million total passengers) at Ontario International Airport; and 6.6 million enplanements (13.2 million air passengers) for John Wayne Airport. This compares to current figures for LAX of approximately 58 million air passengers a year; Ontario, 4.5 million air passengers a year; and John Wayne Airport, 9.8 million air passengers a year.
Of course, 2030 is 20 years away and much can happen between now and then. Therefore, the real eye opener is the comparatively low projected growth of Ontario. Despite the fact that Ontario has new terminals, runways thousands of feet longer than those at John Wayne Airport, and convenient freeway access to all of the Inland Empire as well as northeast Orange County, FAA does not expect it to grow more than 33%, compared to John Wayne Airport’s 38% and LAX’s whopping approximately 60%.
On May 18, 2010, the Los Angeles City Council approved, by a 12-3 margin, a Motion calling for a study of the requirements for, and costs and benefits of, returning Ontario International Airport (“ONT”) to the control of the City of Ontario, California.
Passenger traffic at Ontario has declined from 7.2 Million Air Passengers in…