ONTARIO - City officials have rejected Los Angeles World Airports' recommendations aimed to increase air service at LA/Ontario International Airport, calling the suggestions as impractical and unhelpful.A day after LAWA officials discussed shutting down one terminal to save money, Ontario officials criticized the agency - which operates ONT and Los Angeles International Airport - for failing to produce a solution to reducing costs at the local airport.
For several years, Ontario officials have lobbied for local control, claiming they would be able to convert the medium-hub facility into a competitive regional airport.
"It is clear that LAWA still has no plan to turn around ONT," said Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner, who has been the city's liaison on the issue.
An updated economic analysis by the firm Oliver Wyman has found the decline in air service at ONT between 2007 and 2011 has meant a $495 million economic hit to the Inland Empire. The decline at ONT in the last four years has also meant a loss of 9,250 jobs to the region.
Passenger traffic has declined in recent years by nearly 30 percent at ONT while Los Angeles International Airport has gotten busier.
ONT has lost a third of its ridership since 2007, when travel at ONT peaked at 7.2 million passengers. Only 3.7 million passengers had flown through the facility through October this year.
During Thursday's Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners meeting, members were briefed on possible solutions for the struggling airport.
Shutting down one terminal could help the facility, since costs for terminal maintenance and operating two sets of baggage handling systems are becoming burdensome as fewer flights and travelers pass through the airport, LAWA officials said on Thursday.
This is not the first time the airport has discussed the idea of closing a terminal at ONT, said Jess Romo, airport manager.
The idea was studied several years ago but officials rejected it because it would severely impact the customer experience, Romo said. The concern was greater wait times at checkpoints and screening areas with only one terminal, he said.
Romo said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of LAWA, "put this out there but this is not a definitive project we would be working on."
The idea could be worth revisiting now because passenger traffic levels are lower from when the proposal was first discussed, he said.
Wapner said he feels LAWA is wasting its time exploring ideas that have been already been considered, or proposals that are likely to fail.
"What's needed are lower airport charges, aggressive marketing and - most importantly - airport management solely focused on developing ONT. This can only be accomplished when the airport is under local control," he said.
Mark Thorpe, director of air service marketing for LAWA, said the airport staff has taken significant strides to improve the situation at ONT.
Among the solutions discussed on Thursday was to consider offering a consortium for airlines, he said. As part of the agreement, airlines would assume certain costs at the facility which in turn would reduce operation costs at ONT.
They would also look at reducing the $4.50 passenger facility charge a passenger has to pay when boarding a flight at ONT.
But Thorpe credited ONT staff for reducing the costs for airlines to do business. In 2010, airlines at ONT were paying $13.50 per passenger. That has now dropped to $11.76 per passenger. ONT's figure is even lower than the $12 per passenger airlines have to pay at LAX, he said.
Romo said he has been able to reduce operating expense by 23 percent, which amounts to $19 million since 2010. ONT officials are still looking at ways to reduce overhead costs, he said.
"We want to be able to have a chance of attracting more carriers," Romo said.
Thorpe said, "What's being done at ONT is impressive. When the economy turns, Ontario is going to be competitive on an advantageous level with LAX."
In order for the airport to succeed, Thorpe said ONT is going to need to focus on its business travelers which have largely supported the traffic at the airport in recent years.
Ontario city officials are not the only ones concerned about conditions at ONT. Political leaders throughout the Inland Empire reacted to the news that LAWA may once again discuss the possibility of closing a terminal at ONT.
"I'm glad that LAWA is looking to contain costs, but closing down a terminal is not a reasonable option. The number of terminals is not the source of any problems they are having with over-staffing," said Greg Devereaux, San Bernardino County's CEO and former Ontario city manager.
Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, said he wants to get ONT out of the hands of Los Angeles officials and back to local control.
"LAWA has done a horrible job at managing the the airport," he said.
Hagman said the focus should be about building more terminals rather than closing one.
Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino said he is "extremely" disappointed that LAWA officials are once again considering the idea of closing a terminal. It also serves as another reason why Ontario airport should be returned to local control.
Last month, Baca sent a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asking LAWA to cede the airport to local control.
"How can LAWA arbitrarily make decisions that impact the well-being of the Inland Empire without involving local stakeholders?" Baca said.
An increase in air traffic, would mean more local jobs and economic development, more travel flexibility for Inland residents, and more revenues for local governments, Baca said.
"As long as LAWA controls our airport, we will continue to play second fiddle to LAX," Baca said.
Reach Liset via email, call her at 909-483-8556, or find her on Twitter @DBOntarioNow.