I took my first airplane ride in the early 1970s. It was a day trip to San Francisco that I will never forget primarily because it was the first time I experienced the freedom of flight. We left from the Ontario Airport. Back then there was only one small terminal where you walked directly onto the tarmac then to the airplane. I was 3 or 4 years old and dressed like a miniature Audrey Hepburn in a scallop-collared dress with a matching cape that my mother had made for me, and short white gloves. My sister Lynn joined me, and was dressed identically. Back then flying was for businessmen (yes, men) or reserved for special occasions. And this flight was special to me.
It was the memory of that first plane ride that came flooding back the moment I heard the news that an agreement had been reached transferring the ownership of Ontario Airport from the Los Angeles World Airports to the Ontario International Airport Authority. Back when I was a kid, the airport symbolized the freedom to soar and to visit any place and travel anywhere. But for the region it also symbolized economic freedom.
“Regional airports are catalysts for economic growth…that help develop communities,” explained Thomas Langeland, head of Europe’s Regional Airports Forum at an international conference last year. “Too often the importance of regional airports to economic development of the region in which they are located is not properly acknowledged,” he said, and their “vital role is often overlooked by regulators and the public.”
They are assets that need protecting, which is why Inland Empire leaders for five long years fought the LAWA for control of the airport after passenger numbers started declining at rates higher than national and regional averages. Inland leaders accused Los Angeles managers of favoring Los Angeles area airports at the expense of Ontario and eventually filed a lawsuit claiming that LAWA leaders neglected and mismanaged the facility causing its decline while directing resources to improve Los Angeles International. I witnessed the phenomenon as recent as this spring when I was forced to purchase 100 group airline tickets for LAX instead of ONT, simply because there were not enough flights leaving our region.
The news that the airport will return to local control has inland tourism and hospitality leaders excited and optimistic. We spoke to Michael Krouse, CEO of the Greater Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau after last week’s press conference announcing the news. He anticipates accelerated growth in an already growing sector and economy. “This is an important part of the puzzle as we prepare to open the California Welcome Center at Ontario Mills” and continue to attract more “national and international visitors to our destination,” he told our editor.
Debbi Guthrie, Senior Vice-President for Raincross Hospitality and the Riverside Visitors and Convention Bureau is anticipating only positive outcomes from the change in ownership. For years the City of Riverside has been positioning itself to attract larger conferences and events and invested in a $43 million renovation and expansion of the convention center as well as added hotel rooms to the city’s growing downtown. However, Riverside’s ability to attract large conventions and events relies heavily on its airport accessibility and convenience. “We have heard on occasion that the infrequency of flights is one of the reasons we have lost conferences and they would select Los Angeles instead,” Guthrie said during a brief phone interview, “The increase in the number of flights will benefit this entire region.”
On my last visit to Ontario Airport to pick-up my husband from one of his many trips, I glanced over at the old terminal where I took my first flight decades ago. It now sits frozen in time at the far edge of the airport dwarfed by the sleek modern structure that has replaced it…reflecting on Mr. Langeland’s pronouncements that regional airports are catalysts for economic growth…now that we as a region are close to controlling our own airport we are one step closer to better controlling our economic future. Regaining control of ONT was definitely worth the fight.