San Bernardino International Airport: A quick chat with the director

AJ Wilson has high hopes for San Bernardino International Airport. Photo: Rick Sforza, staff photographer.

AJ Wilson has high hopes for San Bernardino International Airport.  But presumably even he knows scheduled 747 service is not likely. Photo: Rick Sforza, staff photographer.

When San Bernardino International Airport started showing off its new more than $20 million international arrivals building last month, some airline industry analysts questioned the value of the new facility.

The airport, the former Norton Air Force Base, already had a domestic terminal. But that existing terminal accommodates no regularly scheduled commercial flights, so experts were quoted as saying they wonder whether the airport actually needed a new building international arrivals building.

I spoke this week with AJ Wilson, the airport’s executive director. He has read the criticism, such as in this KPCC radio piece, but Wilson said he is undeterred. The flights will come, he promises.

“I don’t feel that I need to argue with any so-called experts,” Wilson said. “We are carrying out a plan to market our airport and that’s what we intend to do.”

What’s this plan, you ask?

Like just about every airport head, Wilson wants to wow airline executives and persuade them to start flights in San Bernardino. He would not tell me which airlines he has spoken with, but he suggested that he understands that major and mid-major airlines — American, United, Southwest, Delta, Alaska, Virgin America and Jetblue — are probably off limits.

That leaves low cost carriers like Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier in the United States, and probably Volaris and Interjet in Mexico. But even those will be difficult to attract, especially since there’s another struggling airport nearby — L.A. Ontario International Airport — seeking the same type of tenants. Ontario recently attracted Volaris. 

“We are doing fine,” Wilson said. “We are having discussions with a number of airlines. It’s simply a matter of when the market is ready and airline business plans are able to consider service. We are just in those preliminary discussions.”

There has been some discussion that the fees charged to airlines at Ontario airport, which is about 23 miles away, are too high. Presumably, San Bernardino’s costs to airlines would be lower. But Wilson said it is too early to know what the cost structure would be for a new market entrant in San Bernardino.

“That’s not necessarily even determined at this point,” Wilson said. “We will work out business deals with the people when there are greater in-depth discussions.”

The good news, Wilson said, is that the general aviation portion of the airport is flourishing.

“Everybody thinks an airport is only passenger service,” Wilson said. “Last year was our highest year ever in number of operations. We are ahead of that by about 10 percent this year. We are experiencing growth.”

Here, a picture of the domestic terminal. Photo: Rick Sforza.

Here, a picture of the domestic terminal. Photo: Rick Sforza.

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Attention: Your favorite airline is not a charity

L.A. wants a fair price for L.A/Ontario International Airport, which it has operated since 1967. Staff file photo.

L.A./Ontario International Airport is often empty. But do airlines care? Not really.  Staff file photo.

“Airlines are not a charity.”

This is what an acquaintance of mine – a person who understands airline economics – tells me whenever I ask why an airline is charging a high fare in a particular market or why it has added a new fee. The general gist is that most U.S. airlines are publicly traded corporations with shareholders they must keep happy. They must make business-minded decisions about how and when to fly their planes.

The problem with this strategy, which has become more pronounced in recent years as airlines have learned how they can keep profits up, is that it is leaving air service holes in small and medium sized cities. Many non-hub airports, like L.A./Ontario International Airport in California’s Inland Empire, cannot support a lot of air service in the current economic climate. And airlines are no longer interested in flying routes just because they always have done so.

This is a topic New York Times business travel columnist Joe Sharkey addressed this week. I think he lives in Tuscon, which is facing its own challenges, though it still has flights to most airline hubs. Sharkey writes:

Across the country, cities where airline service has been reduced and long-haul nonstop routes eliminated in recent years are clamoring for new flights. Many dangle financial incentives in the hopes that an airline will add an extra flight or two to the local schedule. The justification they cite is that local airports are powerful economic engines, central to business development and a sense of civic pride.

I suppose the question is whether you think airlines should serve smaller markets almost out of a sense of duty, or whether you think they should be permitted to fly whatever routes are most profitable for them. The market has already spoken on this issue — airlines are chasing profits — but not everyone agrees with what has happened. I hear often from advocates for L.A./Ontario International who believe airlines should add flights there to cut down on the number of car trips local residents must make to LAX. But airlines don’t really care if travelers who live near the Ontario airport must drive more than an hour to get to LAX. How you get to the airport is up to you.

As we know, many airports are chasing relatively little air service. Sharkey writes of Pittsburgh, where the market for new flights is soft:

Hope, of course, springs eternal. For example, Pittsburgh International Airport, still reeling from the effects of US Airways closing its huge hub there in 2004, is offering financial incentives and even looking for a new top executive in a major drive to entice new service. In 2009, with much of its international traffic gone, Pittsburgh offered $9 million in subsidies to persuade Delta Air Lines to begin a nonstop route to Paris. That service operates seasonally five days a week (this year starting April 27).

What do you think? Should airlines be more cognizant of doing the right thing to ensure that midsize cities aren’t left without connections to major cities? Or should they simply be able to fly to whatever cities are most profitable?

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Pictures: Take a peek inside San Bernardino International Airport

As we mentioned earlier today, San Bernardino International Airport finished construction of a new $20 million international arrivals building. It was built even though the existing facility doesn’t have a single scheduled commercial flight. And of course, there’s another underused airport – L.A/Ontario — 23 miles away.

Staff photographer Rick Sforza took some photos of the airport. They’re worth a look, if only to see a photo of a retired American Airlines 727. (Photos above are the domestic terminal, while photos below are the international one.)

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Have you ever heard of San Bernardino International Airport?

A rendering of the U.S. Customs facility at San Bernardino International Airport. Credit: J.R. Miller and Associates.

A rendering of the U.S. Customs facility at San Bernardino International Airport. Credit: J.R. Miller and Associates.

San Bernardino International Airport near Los Angeles unveiled its brand new, $20.5 million international terminal last week.

This is not a joke.

An airport you’ve probably never heard of — one without a single scheduled airline now serving it — is dreaming big. (If you have heard of the airport, it might be because its former developer faced conspiracy charges related to construction.) San Bernardino’s airport is located about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles and 23 miles east of L.A./Ontario International Airport, which is having its own problems attracting passengers.

My colleague Joe Nelson described San Bernardino’s new building like this:

The 40,000-square-foot, three-story terminal features entry via a jet bridge that should be arriving at the airport within the next two weeks, said A.J. Wilson, the airport’s executive director. It also includes a spacious passenger area, a baggage claim carousel area, administrative offices on two floors, agricultural and customs inspections stations, detention and interview rooms, and a computer and communications center.

Perhaps there’s some opportunity to attract more general aviation tenants, but I’m a bit confused at why San Bernardino thinks it needed a $20.5 million international terminal. Nelson’s story suggests the airport will try first with commercial flights to Mexico, but let’s remember that Ontario airport has tried the same approach, with very limited success.

Another of my colleagues, Jim Steinberg, wrote a follow-up story quoting skeptical experts.

“What market niche are they (SBIA) trying to fill?” John J. Keady, president of Playa del Ray-based Keady Transportation Consulting told Steinberg. Keady said there is no “unseen latent groundswell of demand” that the new terminal will serve.

But San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris told Steinberg he is optimistic.

“What we have to offer is a new articulation…with a state-of -the-art, high-tech terminal,” Morris said. “This has to be attractive to international carriers as an end destination.”

If you’re wondering, San Bernardino International Airport is the former Norton Air Force Base, which closed in 1994. It has a single 10,000 foot long runway.

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Source: Los Angeles and Ontario will tell judge they haven’t reached deal on ONT airport

UPDATE: Noon, Wednesday. As expected, lawyers for Ontario told a judge this morning that they will proceed with their lawsuit after they failed to reach a deal with Los Angeles. “LA only cares about building up LAX and is watching as Ontario continues its demise,” attorney Roy Goldberg, who represents Ontario, said afterward. My colleagues Grace Wong and Liset Marquez are on the story and will update all day. 

Los Angeles and Ontario will tell a judge Wednesday that they have not reached a deal to transfer control of L.A/Ontario International Airport to the city of Ontario, a source familiar with the matter told me tonight.

The sides had put the lawsuit on hold in early December in hopes that they could reach a settlement. But as my colleague Liset Marquez reported over the weekend, it was never clear how seriously or often the sides were working to reach a deal. Now, my source said, the lawsuit filed by Ontario against Los Angeles will proceed.

Ontario filed suit in state court in June in an attempt to wrest control of the airport from Los Angeles, which has operated since 1967 under agreement between the two entities.  Ontario says Los Angeles has breached the contract by failing to properly market the airport and failing to bring in and retain service there. Ontario say it can do a better job operating the facility.

Los Angeles has countered that the market nationwide for airports similar to Ontario is weak, as airlines have retrenched into larger urban airports where they feel they can make more money. Los Angeles has signaled it might be willing to turn over control of Ontario’s airport, but only at a fair price.

Last year, Ontario served about 3.9 million passengers — fewer than it has served in any year since 1985.

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