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Lawmaker wants to shift control of Ontario International Airport away from officials who run LAX

February 17, 2011 | 12:40 pm

Seeking to reverse an unprecedented drop in commercial air travel in the Inland Empire, a key state legislator on Thursday introduced a bill that would shift control of Ontario International Airport from the city of Los Angeles to a regional airport authority.

If created, the new agency would be charged with aggressively marketing the airport to airlines and passengers, and stemming the facility's increasing costs for airlines, which are now higher than most midsized U.S. airports.

The number of passengers handled by Ontario has fallen from 7.2 million in 2007 to 4.8 million last year. According to the latest Federal Aviation Administration forecasts, passenger volume will grow slowly in the years ahead, reaching 6.2 million in 2030, an amount below Ontario's 1995 level.

"The decline in air travel has had a negative impact on the Inland Empire's economy," said state Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga, who introduced the bill. "Having Ontario International Airport transferred to a local authority would give this region the opportunity to aggressively utilize this resource as efficiently as possible and create jobs."

Though the worst recession since World War II has been a factor in the airport's decline, Ontario officials have largely blamed Los Angeles World Airports for erasing almost two decades of growth and causing the regional economy to lose an estimated 8,000 jobs and $400 million. They contend that unless costs are reduced and marketing is increased, the airport will continue to lose passengers over the next six months.

Ontario officials say they have become increasingly frustrated in their six-month effort to assume control of the airport, asserting that Los Angeles has emphasized the modernization of Los Angeles International Airport at Ontario's expense. Late last year, they submitted a proposal to Los Angeles -- which operates the airport under a 44-year joint-powers agreement --to take over the facility, but, they say, the city has yet to respond.

"It's urgent that we break the stalemate between the two cities and speed return of the region's airport to local officials who can again make it affordable for airlines," Dutton said. "Keeping the city of Los Angeles in control is a conflict of interest."

Los Angeles airport officials, however, have asked private airport management companies to submit proposals this month for operating Ontario. They say they are reviewing Ontario's current proposal and remain open to ideas that can provide more local control of the airport while maintaining Los Angeles' ownership.

Mike Molina, a deputy executive director at Los Angeles World Airports, said the city attorney's office will analyze the legality of Dutton's measure. "There has been no discussions about the content of the bill with us," Molina said. "It caught us by surprise."

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-- Dan Weikel

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