August 8, 2008

Airport Sputters, but Will Grow Again

Los Angeles World Airports remains committed to pushing flights from LAX to L.A./Ontario International Airport and its other outlying airports in Southern California.

That's good. Unfortunately, it's going to be difficult to do for a while, and it's impossible to say how long.

The nation's economic downturn, and especially the sky-high price of oil - and hence, jet fuel - is hitting ONT harder than just about any other midsize or larger airport in the country.

ONT will have lost about a third of its flights by November, after ExpressJet and JetBlue pull out. LAWA figures presented Wednesday to a committee of the L.A. City Council, which oversees LAWA, show a 28 percent drop in weekly seat capacity at ONT by the end of this calendar year.

Even Southwest, a successful beacon among struggling airlines and the carrier that accounts for half of ONT's traffic, will have a 16 percent drop in its ONT seat capacity this fall compared to last.

Delta will have reduced its ONT capacity by about 44 percent by year's end. United and U.S. Airways will have scaled back by about a quarter.

LAX, meanwhile, is losing about a tenth of its seat capacity. Nationwide, the figure is 7.7 percent.

To deal with the cost of fuel, airlines are pulling back to their hubs, and neither ONT nor LAX serve as hubs. Southwest, for example, has been adding flights to its Denver hub while reducing its ONT flights since April.

It's bleak for ONT right now after years of growth. The airport handled 7.2 million passengers in 2007, and has plans to start building a third terminal once it gets to 10 million in a year. There have been projections that ONT traffic would hit 30 million by 2035. But right now, there's even some buzz that, if flights keep disappearing, one of the two terminals that opened in 1998 could be closed to save money.

The airport is the Inland Valley's top economic engine, so this downturn hits us all - on top of the housing crisis we're already experiencing. And the loss of flights like JetBlue's to New York reduces Ontario's chances of attracting corporate offices.

On the individual level, it's getting harder to find flights at ONT and the flights that remain will be more crowded than ever. That's life in an economic downturn.

We're confident that things will turn around - just as the national economy will - and the airport will begin to grow again, eventually blooming into the true powerhouse regional leaders expect it to become. It's a bit harder now to predict when that might be.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot officials can do about the factors that are causing ONT's woes. LAWA must keep landing fees and other costs for airlines there as low as possible so that the airport will be ready to resume its growth once the economy turns around.

And we Inland Valley residents should keep ONT our airport of choice - remembering that saving the time, hassle and gas money that a trip to LAX entails more than compensates, usually, for a cheaper flight out of the bigger airport.

(c) 2008 Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.