Ontario's Air Traffic Glut Draws Anger Toward LA

Last Updated Oct 27, 2009 11:44 AM EDT

It has now been over a year since ExpressJet shut down its branded operation and JetBlue walked away from Ontario, but the airport's traffic keeps dropping. I wrote about this death spiral back in March, but the year-over-trends trends are starting to look positive at other airports while Ontario remains in its glut. Now, the anger is rising and it's rapidly turning toward the airport's operator, LA World Airports (LAWA).

You may remember that LAWA had this grand plan of regionalization. Ontario and Palmdale were going to be the keys to diversifying traffic away from LAX. Yeah, right. Since then, LAWA has mercifully given up on Palmdale and given the keys to the airport back to the city. But LAWA still hangs on to Ontario despite its traffic continuing to spiral downward.

Ontario's biggest problem is its cost structure. It is far more expensive than LAX, Burbank, or Long Beach thanks to a terminal project a decade ago that has to be paid for. That terminal is now way too large for its own good, but you can't turn back time.

The local Press-Enterprise has been railing on this problem for quite some time. A couple weeks ago, Cassie MacDuff wrote a column saying it was time for LAWA to pack up and leave. She is probably right.

These days, LAX traffic has dropped so much that there is plenty of room under the agreed upon cap at the airport. Ontario just isn't in a position to compete when its costs are so high. LAWA's decision to overspend on a very expensive terminal project at LAX will help to level the playing field, but not for some time. And then LAWA will continue to be preoccupied with LAX as the primary airport in its arsenal.

There's also the San Bernardino International Airport (former Norton Air Force Base) which lies only 20 miles east of Ontario. It has built a new terminal and started building a new customs and immigration facility. This has the potential to take airlines away from Ontario, despite the involvement of convicted criminal Scot Spencer (PDF) in the airport's development.

I tend to agree with Cassie here. If Ontario wants to really get back into the game, it might want to think about taking control of its own destiny before opportunity passes it by.