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New talks could decide fate of L.A./Ontario International Airport

A passanger walks into the LA/ Ontario International Airport, Terminal 2, in 2011. LA/Ontario International Airport was once the fastest growing regional airport in the naion. Now it is the fastest declining, rocked by the recession and other factors. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times
The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday cleared the way for talks that could determine whether control of struggling L.A./Ontario International Airport should be transferred to the Inland Empire.

Council members also rejected a December 2011 offer by Ontario to take over the facility because the deal called for payments of $50 million to Los Angeles instead of to Los Angeles World Airports, the operator of Ontario, Los Angeles International  and Van Nuys airports. Federal law requires that all airport-related revenue must be used for airport purposes.

Government officials from the Inland Empire said approval of the talks provides a boost to their widely supported effort to gain control of Ontario International, where annual passenger volumes have plummeted from 7.2 million in 2007 to slightly more than 4 million today.

They assert that Los Angeles airport officials have not done enough to stop airlines from cutting service at Ontario during the economic recession.  Los Angeles World Airports blames the decline solely on the downturn and the desire of carriers to relocate flights to large airports like LAX during rough times.

The airport "is on the brink of disaster," Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner told the L.A. council. "L.A.'s strategy is to control competition and it's been very effective. If it continues on its present course, there will be no Ontario airport." 

The council directed Miguel Santana, the city’s chief administrative officer, to oversee the discussions that will explore the value of Ontario International, the most appropriate alternative for its ownership and management, regional planning for airports, and airport-related vehicle traffic, air quality and economic effects.

Santana is required to report back to the council every 90 days on the progress of the talks, which will involve Los Angeles airport officials, a newly formed Ontario airport authority, the city of Ontario, San Bernardino County and other major stakeholders.

Wednesday's vote upheld the recommendations of Santana’s office, which stated in a report last month that Ontario’s December 2011 offer be declined but that further negotiations take place to see if the airport can be transferred to the Inland Empire.

The talks were approved on a 12-2 vote, with council members Tony Cardenas and Richard Alarcon opposed.

If control of the airport were transferred, Cardenas said, workers and contractors there would receive the lower wages that are common to the Inland Empire, losing the benefit of the higher pay offered by Los Angeles World Airports and the city’s living wage ordinance.

He also said that Los Angeles airport officials could better manage the regionalization of airline traffic -- a requirement of a 2006 court settlement to spread of the growth of passengers at LAX to other airports in Southern California.

A transfer “would be a step backward in regionalization,” said Cardenas, who added that LAX and Ontario now act like brother and sister. “There would be little or no coordination” between the two.

Alarcon said city officials needed to look beyond an immediate deal with the Inland Empire and consider whether a transfer might unleash a competitor that “would steal our business” from LAX.

“It would be a sin,” Alarcon said. “We need to protect LAX as the prime regional airport.”

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-- Dan Weikel

Photo: A passenger walks into L.A./Ontario International Airport, Terminal 2, in 2011. L.A./Ontario International Airport was once the fastest growing regional airport in the naion. Now it is the fastest declining, rocked by the recession and other factors. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

 
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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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