Ontario Airport: Diminished service hinders Inland economic development
May 21, 2013
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  • When Ontario International Airport opened its two modern terminals in September 1998, many of Inland Southern California’s top business executives lauded the event as a great way to make a first impression on would-be customers and investors from out of town.

    Fifteen years later, some of those same executives look at the airport and see the opposite: A facility with greatly diminished air service that immediately discourages outside business interests from locating in the Inland Empire.

    It is an obvious frustration for economic development specialists who are trying to attract new businesses to San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Large corporations usually invite out-of-state clients and customers to visit their headquarters or factories, and it is an immediate turnoff when a two-hour drive from larger airports in Los Angeles or Orange County has to be tacked onto a plane trip.

    And, what is probably even more critical for businesses is the time-is-money equation. If a company’s sales team is forced to lengthen their travel time by long drives to an airport, or by having to change planes in Phoenix or Denver, chances are that company will not even consider an investment or a move to the Inland area.

    Essentially, a long drive to another airport or the time spent in a waiting room to catch a second flight can make a half-day’s travel into a full day. That is something most major businesses will not tolerate.

    Local business leaders don’t know of any specific instance where the absence of direct flights to and from Ontario has killed chances to attract new businesses, but they are certain the situation is weighing down their efforts.

    “It comes up all the time,” said Paul Granillo, CEO and president of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, the region’s largest economic development group. “It’s a major issue from a business perspective. For a region our size, we should have better access.”

    Granillo said it’s also a hindrance for people already operating here. When he flies to Sacramento to lobby for the region’s interests, he has little choice but to catch a flight that leaves at about 6 a.m. It gets him to Sacramento at 7:25 a.m., forcing him to waste two hours waiting for his meeting to start.

    Local leaders have voiced their anger at Los Angeles World Airports, which owns Ontario, for imposing higher fees on airlines. That discourages the airlines from scheduling flights into and out of Ontario, leading to a sharp decline in passenger use. The lack of flights also forces the airlines to raise fares for Ontario seats.

    In fact, the number of passengers using Ontario this year is expected to drop to 1986 levels, 10 years before Los Angeles World Airports opened the two new terminals it spent $270 million building. The population of Riverside and San Bernardino counties was fewer than 2 million in 1986 and close to 4.3 million now.

    Also, the number of flights has declined by about 37 percent in the last five years.

    At best the lack of a major air hub is a major inconvenience, and it’s something that John Boyer, executive vice president for NAI Capital, deals with often. As the person in charge of Inland operations for a large commercial real estate company, he said that parties interested in properties are probably not going to make decisions based on flights. For these parties, surface transportation is more important.

    “But invariably anyone coming out here is going to kill a day en route,” Boyer said. “For a guy flying in from Chicago or anywhere on the East Coast, it’s a tough trip.”

    The airlines serving Ontario offer direct flights to Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix and Denver. Other major cities not on the West Coast require changing planes.

    Brett Guge, vice president for administration at Fontana-based California Steel Industries, one of the area’s largest manufacturers, said that he and his salespeople fly for business often and it’s inconvenient and expensive to depend on Ontario. It’s the same when customers fly in to visit his facilities.

    Also, he said if it was easier to attract new businesses, it would mean more growth possibilities for the steel industry.

    “I think any company that’s in this area would be greatly assisted by better service in and out of Ontario,” Guge said.

    A study released earlier this month by economists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that Ontario is not alone in this quandary. A combination of factors, including airline mergers, the price of fuel and the economic slowdown, led to fewer flights across the country.

    The worst hit were midsized airports such as Ontario. Carriers cut one-quarter of their scheduled flights to these terminals between 2007 and 2012. The study cited the airport in Toledo, Ohio, a city of about 300,000 people, which lost much of its traffic to Detroit, which is about 50 miles away.

    Also, cities such as Boise, Idaho, found themselves at a much deeper disadvantage. The nearest major airport to Boise is a five-hour drive away, in Salt Lake City.

    Lou Desmond, co-owner of Desmond & Louis, a Yucaipa-based public relations firm, said he understands Boise’s plight. Desmond said he has done publicity work for the economic development office in Shasta County in rural Northern California, where efforts to recruit businesses were often hindered by transportation issues.

    “That airport there was a deal breaker, multiple times,” Desmond said.

    Desmond agrees that a second-tier airport in Ontario was hurting the Inland area’s chances of becoming a top-line destination for businesses.

    “If they make it difficult to fly in or out, it has to have a major impact,” he said.