The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy
Business & Economy

Ontario Airport officials are cautiously hopeful about rise in passenger numbers

L.A./ Ontario International Airport.
L.A./ Ontario International Airport.
Stock Photo David McNew/Getty Images

For the first time since the Great Recession, L.A./Ontario International Airport is seeing a rise in passenger traffic. But airport officials are only cautiously optimistic about what the rise means. 

From January through June of this year, 2,002,789 travelers flew through the airport known as ONT, a 1.8 percent increase over the 1,967,223 passengers during the same period last year.  It's only a slight rise, but for an airport that has seen traffic fall by more than 40 percent since 2007, it's a move in the right direction.

"We’re pleasantly surprised and we will take those numbers," airport manager Jess Romo told KPCC. "What that’s telling us is that folks are starting to travel more than they had been in the past in spite of fewer seats available."    

Romo explained that there are fewer seats available because the airlines have continued to cut them. In the first years after the recession hit, the airlines reduced seat numbers at ONT by eliminating flights, but in recent years, Romo said, the airlines have cut seats by switching to smaller airplanes. 

"Not only do they need to get the right price for their tickets, they need to get enough people in the seats to be a profitable route," Romo said of the airlines.  

Statistics from a recent performance report to the Ontario International Airport Authority show that compared to the same months last year, seats were reduced 7.2 percent in January, 11.4 percent in February, 8.2 percent in March, 2.6 percent in April and 0.4 percent in May.  Romo said the airline schedules set for the rest of 2014 suggest that airplane loads will continue to be tight through the end of 2014, but if passenger numbers stay strong or continue to rise, more flights could be on the way.

"What the airlines have told us repeatedly is they like what they have seen at Ontario the last couple of years specifically and that the station is becoming more profitable for them," Romo said.

The recent data also show a sharp rise (65.3 percent) in international traffic at ONT. Romo says this is mainly due to the April launch of new service to Guadalajara by the Volaris airline

In the month of June alone, passenger traffic was up significant 5.6 percent over June of 2013, but aviation consultant Jack Keady says one month does not make a trend. 

"With the economy getting better in the Ontario market, which is pleasure more than business, you’d expect June to be a pretty good month," Keady said.

The latest passenger numbers come as dialogue continues between city officials in Ontario and the administration of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti over future control of the airport.   Ontario officials want the airport "set free" from the authority of Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that also oversees LAX. Garcetti told KPCC's AirTalk he's in favor of handing it over... for the right price. 

"I don't want to make a single dollar off of Ontario," Garcetti said in response to a listener's social media posting. "If you make us whole, go for it and take this airport... It is kind of an accident of history that the city of Los Angeles owns the Ontario Airport." 

Two days later, Garcetti echoed the sentiments. 

"It’s not a disagreement about whether this can be or should be transferred but about how much," Garcetti said at a recent roundtable meeting in Claremont, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reported. "If we can arrive at a mutually agreeable price, I think we can get this done."