Saturday, May 6, 2017
Inland Empire airports cleared for economic take-off
By Neil Nisperos
The Inland Valley (CA) Daily Bulletin
Passengers move through terminal 4 at the Ontario International Airport in Ontario Thursday.
Planes are parked in the tarmac near the Luxivair SBD building at San Bernardino International Airport in San Bernardino Thursday. SBIA has seen recent business with seasonal UPS Cargo, and the arrival of Volaris Passenger routes.
Airport leaders are bullish about the growth potential of their industry in the Inland Empire.
Housing prices to the west are pushing more migration inland, airlines have recently demonstrated a keen interest in investing in the area and the region’s major airport is so far thriving in its first six months of local control.
Since Ontario International changed hands in November, from Los Angeles World Airports to a local authority, passenger numbers are consistently up month over month. Last year, ONT served 4.3 million passengers, and officials are predicting a 5 percent growth rate for 2017.
Palm Springs International may seem like a niche destination spot, but the passenger numbers are growing here too. The airport just broke the 2 million passenger mark in 2016.
And San Bernardino International just landed — if you’ll excuse the pun — its first commercial passenger airline, an international carrier to boot.
With that in mind, each of the region’s major airports, Ontario International, San Bernardino International and Palm Springs International airports, are working on improvements to meet anticipated growth and demand.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told the Ontario International Airport Authority on Nov. 2, “There it is, take it.” Commissioners haven’t stopped running since.
The first changes were fairly easy — music in the terminals, valet parking, a retail kiosk in baggage claim. Since then, the airport has announced a $6 million makeover to the concessions area that will bring name-brand eateries to the terminals, changes to parking rates and more flights.
Here’s what’s next:
The aim is to bring back and ultimately surpass the 7.5 million annual passenger traffic the airport enjoyed prior to the Great Recession, OIAA CEO Kelly Fredericks said by phone. He foresees reaching that goal within the next decade.
“We look at the population growth and the employment growth and look at the GDP growing in the Inland Empire, and it’s pretty amazing,” Fredericks said. “There seems to be a movement from the west to the east away from Los Angeles and we think that bodes well for our airport.”
Nationally, air travel is up, thanks to lower gas prices and more disposable income in the current economic cycle. That has ONT officials hoping the convenience of its IE location will be a major attraction, Fredericks said. Driving to ONT and getting to a gate, he said, is an easier and faster option than other Southland options, especially LAX.
The key will be in acquiring additional destination options, which would woo new customers and bring back some of the travelers the airport had lost to LAX, Fredericks said.
“We think we’re at the right place at the right time,” Fredericks said. “Demand is increasing and the airlines are investing again in Southern California. We think we can be a release valve for much of that new demand.”
ONT leaders are constantly meeting with airline executives, Fredericks said, to expand its destination lineup.
“Right now we have 16 destinations,” Fredericks said. “We think we can get into the 35-40 range between domestic and international. We’re excited about that.”
John Husing, chief economist for the Inland Empire Economic Partnership and an expert on regional business trends, worked with ONT in its heyday more than a decade ago. Husing said the key to future success for ONT will be the extent it can attract business travelers — the folks sitting in the nice seats at the front of the airplane.
“When I’ve talked to airport and airline executives, they find that piece of the market is crucial to the ability for them to make a decision to be here,” Husing said.
If it weren’t for its recent announcement about its first international commercial passenger service, San Bernardino International Airport, might not be included in a regional industry primer. Volaris’ flights to and from Guadalajara, which begin in June, are the only commercial carrier seats available.
Much of the business at the airport today is in private business jet travel, with five maintenance, repair and overhaul businesses for general aviation. Even with that limited service, airport officials say the number of aircraft operating daily has doubled between 2013 and 2016, to 48,000.
The property formerly housed the Norton Air Force Base, which closed in 1994.
“We’ve seen demand at this airport increase quite rapidly, and that’s solid growth,” said Mark Gibbs, director of aviation at San Bernardino International Airport. “We offer great facilities and we have attractive prices and we reach out to the business community and do what we can to support aviation and aviation growth.”
Husing said he doesn’t see San Bernardino seriously challenging ONT for passengers.
“San Bernardino (International Airport) is going to be a tough sell because of the existence of Ontario,” Husing said. “Until Ontario gets close to its maximum (capacity), it’s going to be hard for San Bernardino to get very many flights going in and out of there.”
But Gibbs isn’t fretting about competition. SBD officials are taking a demand-based approached, he said.
“Are we going to be the size of Ontario anytime soon? No, we’re not,” Gibbs said. “They’ve got more capacity than we do now and in the future. Our intent is to utilize the assets we have and provide customers more choices.”
Gibbs said the airport has room to accommodate more airlines, but officials at SBD will wait for the demand.
Volaris “is our first step in that direction,” he said.
About an hour’s drive from San Bernardino lies an airport with no slowing in passenger travel business as of late. With nine airlines serving Palm Springs International Airport and 18 nonstop destination cities in the United States and Canada, travel related to the popular annual Coachella music festival is just a small part of the success. Thomas Nolan, executive director for Palm Springs International, said there’s so much more.
“This is a bustling destination made up of nine cities (in the Palm Springs metropolitan area) and 70 percent of all of our traffic comes from more than 500 cities from around the world,” Nolan said. “We have world-class entertainment venues, golf tournaments, gaming, world class resorts. We have 120 golf courses. It is the best destination for outdoor activity, golf and relaxation that appeals to all ages, and that’s why we’re growing.”
To meet demand, Nolan said the airport has plans to upgrade, adding more gates to supplement the existing 16, renovating its ticketing area and updating baggage claim within the next year or two to increase capacity and improve efficiency with new technology.
Within the next three years, Nolan added, the airport plans to build a new car rental facility because of the large tourism demand.
PSP officials are predicting 2 percent annual growth.
“This is one of the most unique airports in the world,” Nolan said. “You have options to wait outside or go into the relaxing air-conditioning, or sit at the wine bar outside or inside. It’s very unique. ... Travelers love our environment, and we’re very proud of our return rate.”
As for the overall airport business in the Inland Empire taking off, there’s nowhere to go but up, Nolan said.
“I think we’re all going to realize some growth because LAX, and even the other airports in that region, are having some capacity issues, and as the Inland Empire economy returns to its original glory, you will see, naturally, the business and tourism continue to increase,” Nolan said. “All the airports will have their respective piece of the pie, coexist and serve their respective share of the passenger demand.”