Wednesday’s column (read it on the jump) is about the circumstances in the 1960s that led Ontario to accept a takeover of Ontario International Airport by Los Angeles.
Two airlines operated at that time, Western and Bonanza. The only flights were to San Francisco, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Phoenix and L.A. That’s service to only three states, including ours! They don’t make international airports like that anymore.
Do you remember the Ontario airport of the 1960s, ’70s or even ’80s? Clue us in — what was it like?
How did L.A. come to own ONT? Slowly
MANHATTAN WON’T be returned to the Indians and L.A./Ontario International Airport won’t be returned to Ontario. Not because Ontario lost the receipt but because Los Angeles wants to keep the airport.
However, L.A. officials last week said they’re willing to consider letting Ontario, or a consortium of agencies, or a private company, run the L.A.-owned airport in an attempt to turn it around.
Traffic dropped from 7.2 million passengers per year to 4.9 million.
All of which raises a question: How did L.A. come to own Ontario’s airport, anyway?
I asked and the Ontario City Library’s Model Colony History Room answered, with Kelly Zackmann providing me dozens of Daily Report stories from the 1960s and later on the topic.
It turns out that Ontario gave up control of the airport to Los Angeles in 1967, then waited 18 years to hand over the deed. Sounds like history’s longest escrow period.
Informal talks between the two cities began circa 1960 but didn’t really get going until January 1966, when L.A. made an offer. Ontario didn’t like it, but momentum to accept it built throughout the year.
Charles Latimer, a former mayor, pushed for a deal. Many businesses and residents were in favor too. So was the Daily Report. Linking with mighty Los Angeles was seen as a chance too good to pass up.
By the mid-1960s, air service from Ontario International Airport was growing, but limited. Two airlines operated there: Western, which had come in 1949, and Bonanza, in 1955.
(The former Ontario Municipal Airport had changed its name in 1946 because of transpacific cargo flights.)
In 1967, Western had 26 flights daily from Ontario. But Western could only get you to Sacramento, San Francisco, Palm Springs or L.A. Bonanza would fly you to L.A., Las Vegas or Phoenix.
International airport? With flights to only two states other than California, it wasn’t even a national airport. But things were picking up.
In 1959, Ontario was designated an alternative to Los Angeles International Airport when LAX was fogged in. By 1967, 200,000 passengers per year were using Ontario, a tenfold increase in 10 years.
The problem was that the airport was falling apart.
“The main runway is crumbling and is in need of expensive repair,” according to a 1966 story. “Repairs must be made or the airport will be forced to shut down, officials said.”
Councilman Sam Crowe and Mayor Howard Snider negotiated for Ontario with L.A.’s Department of Airports. To upgrade the airport, Crowe said the only options were a “merger” with L.A., a bond issue on a regional basis “under an airport district” to raise money or legislation to aid airports.
The local congressman, Jerry Pettis, said Ontario couldn’t expect help from Washington, and other cities were cool to the concept of bailing out the airport.
Daily Report editorials urged the merger, saying Ontario simply didn’t have the money or know-how to fulfill the airport’s potential.
“Every resident of the West End would benefit from a merger,” one editorial claimed.
In letters to the editor and in town hall meetings, residents welcomed L.A. and the concept of expanded service, although a few didn’t want the noise it would bring.
Supporters said the takeover would enable residents to fly from a local airport rather than travel to LAX and would also attract businesses and create jobs.
Some also said “dilapidated” East Holt Boulevard would be cleaned up with an influx of hotels and restaurants. Oh, 1967 residents! You’re killin’ us.
Incidentally, the two airport managers often cited in these Daily Report stories had great names. L.A. had Francis Fox and Ontario had the exquisitely monikered Woodruff DeSilva. Advantage: Ontario.
From L.A.’s standpoint, Ontario had other pluses. LAX needed more capacity and Ontario offered it. It’s also possible LAX didn’t want any competition, although officials never said so in the newspaper.
L.A. didn’t buy the airport, since the deal was considered a merger. But L.A. promised at least $20 million in airport improvements.
That would fund the rebuilding of its single runway and the addition of a second, the expansion of taxiways and terminals and the purchase of 350 acres of vineyards east of the airport.
Mayor Snider was concerned about follow-through. Negotiations dragged on. L.A. gave Ontario a take-it-or-leave-it deadline. On March 21, 1967, Ontario’s council voted unanimously to accept.
The transfer took place Nov. 1, 1967. The Ontario council’s last act as airport management was, on Halloween, to award the airport’s janitorial contract. A nice note to go out on.
The day before, Oct. 30, was declared Sam Yorty Day in Ontario as Yorty, the mayor of Los Angeles, visited to present a check for $2 million to pay off Ontario’s airport-related debt. Afterward, everyone repaired to the Elks Club for a luncheon.
Theme of the festivities: “Partners in Progress.”
Exactly how much progress was made after that is hard to determine without reading 20 years’ worth of Daily Report editions. It’s safe to say that progress was made, but not as much as at least one partner had hoped.
A second runway was added, albeit not until 1981, more than a decade behind schedule.
The Concorde supersonic jet landed in Ontario in 1974, a coup for the airport.
Passenger levels grew. Yet rosy 1967 predictions of 10 million or even 15 million passengers by 1975 didn’t come true, and still haven’t.
Perhaps L.A. overestimated Ontario’s appeal, or perhaps L.A. didn’t try hard enough.
Competition developed. The vision in 1967 was that Ontario would become the Southland’s second major airport. But the future John Wayne Airport in Orange County also began an expansion in 1967 and it’s now the second-busiest airport after LAX.
But what about ownership of Ontario International Airport?
Ontario had agreed in 1967 to give L.A. the deed once certain conditions were fulfilled, but evidently there was no deadline for the transfer to take place. So it didn’t.
By the mid-1980s, relations were strained. Ontario instituted a parking tax at the airport, which L.A. said was illegal. L.A. sued. Ontario counter-sued to clear up issues about noise and easements.
On Feb. 4, 1985, Ontario Mayor Robert Ellingwood said in his state of the city address that he’d like to see Ontario retake control of the airport. He admitted he was in a council minority on that.
It was worse than he knew. On Feb. 19, the five-person City Council voted 4-0 to transfer the airport title to L.A. – at a meeting when Ellingwood was out sick.
“I feel a little sandbagged,” Ellingwood griped a few days later. He was so put out, he refused to sign any paperwork on the deal. Vice Mayor Faye Myers Dastrup signed instead.
The transfer actually had been under negotiation for a year until issues involving utilities were cleared up, officials said, which casts Ellingwood’s state of the city remarks as a hail-Mary play.
Anyway, the airport transfer was finally done, a mere 18 years late. According to a Feb. 20, 1985, news story, “The document is to be mailed today by City Attorney Sam Crowe.”
How’d he send it – airmail?
A councilman in 1967 and the city attorney in 1985, Crowe was perhaps the only major figure involved in both deals.
Escrow closed July 1, 1985.
Weeks later, Ellingwood resigned. In 2004, shortly before his death, he told the Daily Bulletin concerning the airport transfer: “That just finished my political career. It was the biggest disappointment I had in my entire eight years – losing that airport.”
In 1985, he told the publication Inland Business that the airport was great for Ontario as a whole but that he was rankled that City Hall had to bear costs – extra police and fire protection and a bomb squad, among others – for a facility that was off the tax rolls.
While the airport benefited the region, Ellingwood said, “only Ontario has to pay the bills.”
He added: “There has got to be an ultimate solution. I think it is an airport authority that represents the area and not the controlling city.”
Twenty-five years later, that idea is back in play. But so what? With Ontario International Airport, nothing happens very fast.
David “International” Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call 909-483-9339 or write 2041 E. Fourth St., Ontario 91764. Read his blog at dailybulletin.com/davidallenblog