L.A./Ontario International Airport (ONT), located only ten miles from the city of Claremont, is a frequent alternative to the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for students at the Claremont Colleges flying home for break.
Since 2007, however, ONT has been experiencing a large decrease in number of flights and increasing financial troubles. According to reports from the airport, flights to and from Ontario have decreased by 38.4% since 2000.
The city of Ontario claims that Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the owner of ONT, LAX and Van Nuys Airport, and previously, Palmdale Regional Airport, are to blame for the steady decline in flight and passenger numbers. LAWA cites the worldwide economic downturn as the reason.
“What we suspected was going on was that there was some incompetence and not doing everything that could have or should have been done to grow the airport, and frankly some of the emails and testimony have made that extremely, vividly clear,” Andre Cronthall, a lawyer for the city of Ontario, said.
According to Cronthall, LAWA’s management decisions have raised costs for ONT.
“[LAWA] spent millions of dollars on marketing [for ONT] up until 2007, when that number dropped closer to the $150,000 mark,” Cronthall said.
Some airlines have cut the number of ONT flights they offer without experiencing a decrease in total passenger traffic. Southwest Airlines, ONT’s largest airline, carried 3.2% more passengers in 2014 than in 2013 despite offering 4.9% fewer seats, according to Planestats.org.
The city of Ontario claims that LAWA hasn’t kept its promise of regionalization, most importantly of spreading air traffic from LAX to ONT. This stand-off between ONT and LAWA goes as far back to the mid-2000s when declines in flights and passengers began to affect many regional airports.
In February 2005, a coalition of cities around Los Angeles sued LAWA, claiming that the new LAX Master Plan would increase air traffic and cause social and environmental harm to the surrounding neighborhood. The case ended with a 2006 court settlement that required LAWA “to promote regionalization of airport services by encouraging growth of air service at Ontario and Palmdale airports.”
In February 2013, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors directed L.A. County Chief Executive Officer William T. Fujioka to review whether LAWA had been complying with the 2006 settlement. Fujioka submitted a report on April 26, 2013 that states that LAWA had spent over $2 million on marketing for Ontario Airport from 2006 to 2007, but less than $200,000 from 2012 to 2013. During its April 30, 2013 meeting, the board officially endorsed the transfer of Ontario Airport to the city of Ontario.
The city of Ontario had attempted to buy Ontario Airport from LAWA for several years, but negotiations led to a court battle when on April 10, 2013, the city rejected LAWA’s offer to sell Ontario Airport for $474.4 million, according to a report prepared by LAWA.
LAWA estimates Ontario’s fair market value at between $243 million and $605 million, while an audit by Ernst & Young for the city of Ontario estimated the price at $400 million, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, LAX has continued to dominate the Southern California airport industry. In 2014, LAX’s market share was 76.2%, while Ontario’s was 4.4%, down from 8.8% in 2000.
Hunter Reardon PO ‘15, who runs the Claremont Colleges Airport Transportation Project, frequently drives students to LAX, ONT and the Long Beach Airport. He said that he has noticed a trend of fewer requests for single-passenger trips to Ontario and more requests for large groups of twelve or thirteen students, all of whom are on the same flight.
“I was swimming in Seattle trips [around winter break]; it’s always Alaska flights that are doing that,” Reardon said. “This trend that I’ve noticed would indicate that Ontario is decreasing its number of flights and that Claremont students have adapted to that already.”
According to a survey of 413 students at the Claremont Colleges conducted by TSL, 72% of students who fly home for break, fly through ONT and 25% fly through LAX. Reardon said that 35% of his 2014 winter break rides to airports were to LAX and 64% were to ONT.
Sally Vandenberg CM ‘17 said that she typically uses Southwest, which offers more affordable flights than most major airlines, from ONT to Northern California.
“I also fly home to Iowa sometimes, not on Southwest, but it’s still just more convenient to fly out of Ontario so I don’t have to take a cab all the way to LAX,” she wrote in an email to TSL. “Plus, Ontario is quick because there [are] never any lines at security or ticketing.”
The TSL survey also shows that 30% of students who fly through Ontario have noticed significant price increases, and 27% have experienced difficulties scheduling flights.
“I have noticed a significant downturn in flight availability and the number of seats on routes from ONT to the east coast,” Ben Cohen PO ‘16 wrote in an email to TSL. “This has pushed the price for these flights way up and has made making the trip to LAX a much more attractive and affordable option.”
On the other hand, Anna Nichols PZ ‘16 wrote in an email to TSL that she flies out of Ontario to avoid the higher cost of transportation from Claremont to LAX.
“Ontario is a lot smaller too, meaning security is super fast, while at LAX you are guaranteed a line at check-in and at security,” she wrote.
Megan Rohn PO ‘18 said that LAX’s lower ticket prices make up for the cost of a shared ride to LAX.
“When I flew out of Ontario for fall break, my flight at 10 a.m. got delayed because the plane was having mechanical problems, and I couldn’t go home until the next day,” she said. “However, had I flown out of LAX at 10 in the morning, there would have been, I assume, four more options for me to fly out that same day.”
Some students, including Rohn and Zoe Zhou PO ‘18, choose to fly out of LAX because it offers direct flights to more destinations than Ontario Airport.
Matthew Reade PO ‘18, who offers rides to students, said that he was surprised by the relatively small number of students going to ONT around winter break.
“The volume of people [who were] going to LAX really increased around Christmas time,” he said. “I feel like that’s because the availability to get to certain areas of the country at Ontario is very limited.”
Sean Gunther contributed reporting.