Why L.A/Ontario International Airport (ONT) is in bad shape

I appeared on local Los Angeles radio on Wednesday to discuss the disaster that is L.A/Ontario International Airport. What? You've never heard of it?

Ontario International Airport is not in good shape. But why? Photo: Thomas Wasper, via Flickr.

Ontario International Airport is not in good shape. But why? Photo: Thomas Wasper, via Flickr.

If you don't live in Los Angeles, I don't blame you. There's not a whole lot to the place, which is about 50 miles west of downtown in an area called the Inland Empire. About four million people live there. Many moved to the Inland Empire for one thing: a low cost of living.

Here's a bit of a primer on the airport issue. 

History

The city of Los Angeles took over the airport in 1967. At the time, Ontario believed Los Angeles would be able to invest more money in the facility and run it more efficiently. That more or less happened, with Los Angeles investing more than $500 million in the past 45 years, including almost $300 million for new terminals. 

The airport grew along with the Inland Empire, peaking at 7.2 million passengers in 2007. Since then, however, it has been on a steady decline. It handled slightly fewer than 4 million passengers last year. 

Ontario politicians say airlines have pulled flights because the airport is mismanaged. They say Los Angeles prefers to invest only at LAX.  Los Angeles says airlines have pulled out because of macroeconomic conditions. 

What's happening now?

Ontario sued Los Angeles to try to regain control of the airport. Los Angeles says it will sell to Ontario for a fair price, but it has no plans to give it away. The last price Los Angeles asked for was $474 million.  That seems about $450 million too high. 

The case is stuck in the judicial process. But Ontario filed papers last week meant to embarrass Los Angeles. Apparently, the Los Angels World Airports COO called the Inland Empire the "Imbred Empire" in an email. The LAX executive director may have called Ontario airport "a silly waste of time."

What about regionalization?

Los Angeles settled an unrelated lawsuit in 2006 by saying it would work to disperse air traffic across the L.A. region. 

I'm not exactly sure whose idea this was, but it was sort of ridiculous from the start. 

Public policy might dictate that it's a good idea not to overstuff LAX. But airlines really don't care. As long as they have the gates they need, they'll keep adding flights where they can make the most money. For now, that's at LAX. 

Airlines don't care how passengers get to the airport. They don't care about the pollution it causes. They don't care about traffic. They only care that passengers get there.

The place is a dump

Yes, Ontario airport isn't in great shape. Restaurants have closed, and at some points in the day, passengers need to rely on vending machines if they want to eat or drink. 

But let's remember that airlines don't really care about the facilities. They'll go into any airport in the world if they think they can make money. Banana Republics. War-torn countries. If there's a buck to be made, airlines will deal with just about anything. 

They haven't been pulling flights from Ontario because the facilities are poor. They're pulling flights because they can't get travelers to pay high fares. 

What's happening in the airline industry?

The industry has consolidated greatly in the past five years. There are essentially now only four major airlines -- United, American, Delta and Southwest. 

Those four airlines like to fly into huge airports, like LAX, Dallas Fort Worth and Chicago O'Hare. Even Southwest, which remains Ontario's biggest airline, is trying the big airport approach. These days, Southwest is much more likely to add flights in New York or Los Angeles than in outlying places like Ontario. 

This is a problem all midsize airports are having. But Ontario has it a little worse. Airlines are chasing what they call a high-value corporate traveler -- people with deep pockets -- and Ontario just doesn't have enough of those. 

For awhile, Delta tried a nonstop to Atlanta. Airline officials told me it was a disaster. 

It's good politics. 

Politicians in the Inland Empire figured out pretty quickly that the optics of this issue are good.

They can whine that big brother up in Los Angeles is ruining their local airport. They can say they can run it better. I'm sure there are votes in this rhetoric. 

But I think this is a bit of a case of be careful what you wish for. They might get their airport. But whether can they do anything with it, I am not sure. You don't just go into United Airlines, or Allegiant Air, for that matter, and say, we have a new coat of paint up, so fly to our airport. 

I'm not saying it's hopeless. Things in the airline business change constantly. And airlines can move planes on a whim.  So if someday airlines believe they can make money in Ontario, they'll be back.