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L.A. voters say Ontario should control its airport, poll finds

A clear majority of likely voters in Los Angeles favor transferring control of struggling LA/Ontario International Airport from the city to a municipality in the Inland Empire, a new public opinion survey shows.

The poll, which is part of a political strategy by the city of Ontario to wrest ownership of the facility from Los Angeles World Airports, is largely directed at Los Angeles City Council members and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who have resisted the idea in the past.

Pollsters found that 52% of city voters favor shifting control to Ontario, while 17% are opposed and 31% are undecided. After voters were informed about the details of the proposed transfer, the majority increased dramatically to 77% while the opposition shrank to 12% and the undecided category to 11%.

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“The voters of Los Angeles get it,” said Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner. “We welcome their support in our efforts to regain control of Ontario airport.”

Los Angeles Councilman Tony Cardenas said, however, that the poll would not change his position that L.A. should maintain control of what had been one of the fastest-growing regional aviation facilities in the nation. He added that his colleagues would not favor giving up such a valuable asset.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX, said that Los Angeles World Airports needed to provide more incentives for airlines to retain and add service at Ontario but that he would not support a change in ownership unless it benefited Los Angeles financially.

Released Tuesday, the survey is the latest development in an ongoing effort by Ontario and its supporters to take over the airport, which, under Los Angeles’ management, has lost about a third of its passengers from a high of 7.2 million in 2007. Projections indicate that Ontario is on track to dip to 4.55 million travelers for 2011, a level not seen since the 1980s.

Ontario, which recently launched a public relations campaign called Set Ontario Free, asserts that Los Angeles officials have not aggressively marketed the facility or moved quickly enough to cut what were some of the highest airport costs in the nation for airlines.

On the other hand, Los Angeles officials say the worst recession since World War II caused airlines to reduce service and relocate flights to larger airports, such as Los Angeles International.

“The poll released today by the City of Ontario is misleading and an attempt to deflect the truth,” said Gina Marie Lindsey, head of the airport agency, in a statement. “It is ridiculous for any governmental body to presume that an airport developed and modernized at the expense of another city, is entitled to a ‘transfer’ of that asset.”

The survey was conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, a public opinion research firm based in Santa Monica. Between Sept. 18 and 22, the company interviewed a random sample of 901 Los Angeles voters likely to cast ballots in the November 2012 presidential election. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

Pollsters found that only 15% of voters knew that the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles World Airports owned and managed Ontario International. Los Angeles, which also operates LAX and Van Nuys Airport, began running the facility in 1967 and gained ownership from Ontario in 1985.

According to the survey, arguments repeatedly used by Los Angeles World Airports and city leaders to oppose the transfer have very little influence over the voters surveyed. No more than 38% found them convincing.

Los Angeles officials have maintained, among other things, that Ontario lacks experience running airports, that Los Angeles has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the airport and that the economy, not current management, is responsible for Ontario’s steep decline in passengers.

Far more persuasive for voters were arguments in favor of the transfer. Those stressed that Ontario has been mismanaged by Los Angeles, that local control would provide better leadership, that Los Angeles could focus on improving LAX and that a shift in ownership would increase the convenience for many travelers who have been forced to use LAX instead of Ontario.

dan.weikel@latimes.com


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