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Inland Empire airports look to spread their wings

Travelers pass through L.A./ Ontario International Airport.
Travelers pass through L.A./ Ontario International Airport.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Southern California travelers usually have to look west when booking departure flights. But LAX, John Wayne, and even Burbank Bob Hope Airport are all quite a hike for air travelers from inland counties.

There is change on the horizon. More people are moving inland, drawn by affordable housing. Local airports are starting to serve more commercial travelers and are looking to expand to meet growing travel demand.

John Husing is chief economist for the Inland Empire Economic Partnership. He joined A Martinez to talk about the business of air travel in the I.E.

The LA/Ontario International Airport officially switched to local control in November. For years they'd been operated by the same group that runs LAX. How's it going now that Ontario is on its own?

"We've seen two things so far in the first quarter this year. Passenger traffic is up 6.8 percent [over last year]. Air cargo tonage is up a little over 10 percent.

"So in fact we're seeing the best growth we've looked at since the great recession and the downturn at Ontario International."

What accounts for that change? Is it just a fresh face?

"I think it's a combination of a new fresh face and the fact that the economy in the Inland Empire  is one of the strongest in California. We've been adding jobs faster than any other metro area in California except L.A. in absolute terms."

There have been some changes at the Ontario airport--little things like valet services and music in the terminals. What else is being done to upgrade the facility?

"Basically it's a change in management, and management is working very close with the various airlines to try and increase the amount of service that's coming in.

"That plus it's just a fresh attitude all the way around. People in the area...I get asked constantly 'how's the airport doing?' Just as you are doing."

Is making the airport a simply more attractive place the key to getting more passengers to Ontario? Or is it something else, a little less superficial?

"The most important thing is to use the data about the catchment are of the airport, which is the Inland Empire as well as the San Gabriel Valley and Northern Orange County, and sit down with airlines and talk about the fact that we are enormously under-served, and it's crazy for people to go from here to LAX to try and get anywhere."

Moving now to San Bernardino International Airport. This is the former site of Norton Air Force Base, before it closed in 1994. How are they taking advantage of increased air travel demand in the I.E.?

"Up until almost right now there's been no [commercial] air service at the airport. It's been used for repair of aircraft and for private trips. There's a leasing office there where you can fly in a leased plane.

"However...There is about to be a Mexican airline that will connect San Bernardino to Guadalajara, so that will be the first time they have regular commercial service."

Looking big picture, what do you think the expansion of airports and commercial air travel means for the future of jobs and the economy in Riverside and San Bernardino counties? Should LAX be worried?

"LAX is going to get what it'll do quite all right. For the Inland Empire the crucial thing is that...air service almost evaporated at Ontario in particular. [That] really hurt the business community that needed to get its executives around the country or its customers coming in. The fact that the airport is now under local control and will be aggressively going after new service is extraordinarily important to this economy."  

Click on the blue media player above to hear the conversation.