Negotiations fold over ownership transfer of LA/Ontario airport

Negotiations over transferring ownership of LA/Ontario International Airport have collapsed for a second time, setting the stage for a court battle that could determine whether Inland Empire officials can take over the struggling facility operated by the city of Los Angeles.

Attorneys involved in the dispute said Wednesday that talks between Los Angeles and Ontario representatives broke off Jan. 31 — the last day of a 58-day postponement in a pending lawsuit brought by the city of Ontario.

Filed last June in Riverside County Superior Court, the suit seeks to wrest control of the airport from Los Angeles World Airports, which also operates Los Angeles International Airport and Van Nuys Airport.

It alleges that the agency has violated decades-old agreements with Ontario to do its best to attract airline service to the airport. The number of annual passengers using LA/Ontario has plunged from 7.2 million in 2007 to 3.97 million today.

The pause in the case was intended to give the two agencies a chance to negotiate a deal that would shift ownership of the regional aviation hub to Ontario.

"The parties have tried, but remain far apart," said Andre J. Cronthall, a private attorney who represents the city of Ontario. "There has been no movement in their positions."

Los Angeles officials have offered to sell the once-popular airport to Ontario for $475 million. They insist the facility is a valuable asset that should be sold to recover the airport department's investment.

Ontario has offered to assume all debts and liabilities for the airport and pay costs of assuming ownership, but Ontario officials argue that airport transfers between two government agencies elsewhere have not involved a sale.

They contend that LA/Ontario — an economic engine for the Inland Empire — is at a crisis point. If the airport's management doesn't change soon, they say, it will be difficult for the facility to recover.

Los Angeles officials blame the decline on the worst economic recession since World War II, which has prompted air carriers to reduce flights and relocate service to larger airports such as LAX.

A June 6 court hearing has been set for the case.

The resumption of litigation marks the second time transfer talks have collapsed in the past year. Several months of negotiations ended last April when Ontario rejected the sale price proposed by Los Angeles World Airports and filed a legal claim, the first step toward bringing a lawsuit.

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