Ontario's Airport Ready, and Willing, to Grow

Times Staff Writer

When jets taking off from Ontario International Airport scream over tiny Hope Chapel on Sunday mornings, Pastor Paul Leon pauses his sermon. Patiently.

If his parishioners mind the interruption, they don't show it. Some even may be members of Friends of Ontario International Airport, a group that lobbies for airport expansion.

The congregation's acceptance of the disruption contrasts starkly with the attitude of other Southern California communities, where residents continually complain about airport noise. As a result of that sort of acceptance, Ontario offers a rare double windfall for Southern California's transportation plans: an airport with room to grow nestled in a region that welcomes more airplanes.

It may get its wish. Ontario is seen as Southern California's best hope to relieve crowding at aging Los Angeles International Airport and to accept travelers from Orange County, where a proposal to build an airfield at the former El Toro Marine base was defeated.

Regional transportation planners say they will allocate about one-fifth of the 154 million annual passengers expected to use Southern California airports by 2030 to Ontario International -- which would represent nearly a fivefold increase over the 6.5 million it served last year.

The proposition has been met with enthusiasm at Ontario City Hall. "We're being asked to step up to 30 million, and maybe even more," said Mayor Gary Ovitt. "We're willing to go to that if we make sure all the infrastructure is there. We want to keep our quality of life intact."

Ontario International operates 24 hours a day without the noise curfews or capacity limits that airports in Burbank, Santa Ana and Long Beach operate under. And about 25% of the facility's 1,700 acres is available for development of new terminals, runways and hangars.

The 80-year-old airfield recently was named by Forbes magazine as one of the five best alternative airports for business travelers. Trade magazine Airport World touted the facility as one of the "fastest-growing cargo gateways in the U.S.," a role that Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn envisions expanding.

In fact, the success of Hahn's $9.6-billion plan to modernize LAX hinges in part on transferring cargo service to Ontario so LAX can accept more passenger flights.

Despite capacity and the welcoming local attitude, raising the airport's profile promises to be an uphill climb.

Transferring Traffic

Los Angeles city officials have worked for decades to persuade airlines to bring flights to Ontario. It took from 1985 until the mid-1990s to reach an agreement with carriers on an expansion plan. Two new terminals opened in 1998, but seven of the 26 gates in the glass-enclosed facilities remain available for lease.

City officials also have tried repeatedly to persuade travelers across Southern California to use the Ontario facility, including a move by the Los Angeles Airport Commission, which operates it along with LAX, to lower landing fees and parking rates.

But the airport's clientele continues to be primarily business travelers who live relatively close to the airport, according to a passenger survey released by the Los Angeles airport agency April 30.

What has worked at Ontario are flights offered by regional carriers such as Southwest Airlines. It and other carriers say they would be happy to expand their Ontario operations if they could make money doing so. "A lot of people want long-haul service -- not just short-haul -- but the numbers aren't there yet," said John Coelho, Southwest's area marketing manager for the Inland Empire.

Southwest is the largest of 14 passenger airlines with service at Ontario, having carried 53% of the airport's passengers in 2002. Southwest's service has grown steadily to 59 flights a day, compared with six when it began service in 1985.

International carriers haven't fared as well. After 11 months, AeroMexico canceled its much-publicized flights to Hermosillo in December when it failed to generate a profit. Air Canada dropped service to Toronto in 2000 after 89 days -- even after the Los Angeles airport agency spent $450,000 marketing the service.

In all, the airport offers 107 daily nonstop flights to 18 U.S. cities and two daily flights to two international destinations. That makes it busier than Burbank and Long Beach, but short of traffic at John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

Securing air service isn't the only obstacle to growth at Ontario International. When the airport hits 12 million passengers a year, it must comply with restrictions laid out in a 1977 order by the California Air Resources Board. It is projected to reach about 10 million passengers annually by 2016.

The order requires that officials offset increased vehicle emissions at the airport through pollution-reduction programs elsewhere in the community, said Gennet Paauwe, a spokeswoman for the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The airport also can attain this goal, officials said, by consolidating its rental car facilities, using alternative-fuel vehicles, electrifying airfield equipment such as baggage cart haulers, and providing electrical hookups for planes while they idle at their gates.

The airport's location -- in an area zoned largely for industrial and commercial uses -- has saved it from the residential outcry that impedes expansion at many airports, but not all area residents favor growth. Some are calling for noise curfews that would restrict flights over neighborhoods between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

"It's very irritating at 2:30, 3:30 and 4:30 in the morning when cargo planes take off," said Rudy Favila, a former Ontario city councilman who lives near the flight path. "They're loaded, so we hear those engines just screaming, and they're slow to lift, so they come right over your home."

Despite the long-term challenges, officials say the Inland Empire and its manufacturing-based economy are poised to lift Ontario's airport into the ranks of such well-known secondary airfields as Midway Airport in Chicago and Ronald Reagan National Airport near Washington.

AeroMexico says it will try again to start service here July 7 with four flights a week to Cabo San Lucas. "We have faith in this market," said Juan Brothers, a Los Angeles-based regional manager for the airline.

Eva Airways has signed a letter of intent with Hahn agreeing to shift its cargo flights from LAX to Ontario. But the airline will transfer its service from Taipei, Taiwan, only after Los Angeles' airport agency builds a terminal at Ontario to Eva's specifications.

The agency plans to construct the facility on a 105-acre parcel in the airport's northwest corner by September 2004.

The Eva deal has created a buzz in the cargo industry about Ontario's emergence as the country's third-fastest growing cargo airport, handling 547,461 tons last year.

Ontario is ideally situated for cargo service, officials say, citing its location near two of the nation's busiest interstate highways for truck traffic and within miles of one of the country's fastest-growing warehouse and distribution centers. Airlines also would find lower rents and labor costs in the Inland Empire, economists say.

Even so, industry analysts say the city of Los Angeles is going to be hard-pressed to lure cargo airlines away from LAX until that facility reaches its capacity.

UPS Expands Hub

Some carriers are reaping the benefits of the Inland Empire's fast-growing economy. United Parcel Service, which handled 75% of Ontario's cargo last year, just doubled its space with new facilities completed in 2002.

The facility is UPS' West Coast hub and transfer point for packages and freight bound for Asia.

"One of the bright spots in the development of our international business is Ontario Airport," said Chris Mahoney, senior vice president of global transportation services at UPS. "It's a key global distribution point for us."

Adding stops to Ontario's flight schedule is also key for Ovitt, Ontario's mayor, who last flew from LAX three years ago.

After spending three hours driving the 53 miles from Ontario to LAX, Ovitt said, he missed his flight to Mexico City. Today, he can drive five minutes from his City Hall office to Ontario airport to catch a plane to the Mexican capital.

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