Ontario airport: the old days

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 david.allen@inlandnewspapers.com, call 909-483-9339 or write 2041 E. Fourth St., Ontario 91764. Read his blog at dailybulletin.com/davidallenblog

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  • Kristin McConnell

    I remember my family and I taking my friend to the airport when I was 12 — 1986. I remember the Ontario Airport being very small and how strange it was that the terminals were outside. My friend actually had to walk across the tarmac to climb the stairs in order to board the plane.

    I’m not originally from this area, so the airports we used (Burbank, LAX) were already enclosed, with those long hallways that deliver you right to the door. I remember thinking how strange it was that Chris had to leave from here — in the middle of nowhere?? Remember, I was a 12 year old from LA County. I didn’t know here from there. 🙂

    Fast forward into adulthood, I traveled from Ontario to San Jose, my first time back in the airport since 1986. I was a bit confused when I saw the new facility, and doubly confused when the taxi took us past the :::original::: airport. It was strange to me to be at the same airport, but in another part of the property. I like the new (current) facility, and I was very glad that the old one was still standing. I’ve always loved history like that. 🙂

    [On my recent trip to Portland, I also got on and off the plane at PDX via metal stairs and a walk on the tarmac. It was a fun retro experience. — DA]

  • Catherine Brundage

    As a child I would fly between Ontario and Oakland each summer to visit a great-aunt. I also went on school field trips to the airport. Back in the 60’s and 70’s Ontario airport was much smaller than it is today. My family had moved from urban Los Angeles to Claremont. This area seemed so undeveloped and remote back then, full of citrus groves, wineries and dairy farms. Somehow, the fact that we had an airport seemed to add a bit of cosmopolitan flair and importance to the suburban/rural sprawl that was this valley back then.

    I remember that ONT seemed so much more friendly and comfortable than LAX. Luggage seemed to be retrieved very quickly and easily. I rode alone at the front of the plane, along with other unescorted children. The attendants (“stewardesses”) on those (now-defunct) Air California flights were very friendly and attentive to us. They greeted us and showed us to our seats, giving us our complimentary 7-Ups and smoked almonds (from California, of course!) as soon as drink service began. They made us feel like celebrities. I always wore my best dress and shoes. It was a more gracious and glamorous era of flying.

    The best part was getting on and off the plane. I was impressed to note that the flight attendants made sure to speak to every passenger entering and exiting the plane, “Bye-bye!” “Good-bye, now!”, always smiling and making eye contact. In those pre-security days, parents greeted us right off the runway and nobody had to show I.D.

    That’s ONT Airport several decades before Steven Slater’s sensation.

    [Ha ha! Nice newsy signoff, Catherine. — DA]

  • April Patterson

    I remember in the early 70’s when I was little, my dad would take me to the Ontario airport to watch the planes. We could sit there for a couple of hours right by the window.

    I also remember taking a flight in and out of Ontario and the stairs were rolled right up to the plane. You would go down the stairs and walk on the ground to the gate.
    It was like a little old fashioned airport. I loved it. Sooooo different now.

  • Bob House

    I used to occaisonally fly to the SF Bay area for college out of ONT in the mid-to-late 60s. The old terminal was pretty much the same then as the day it closed — all boarding took place outdoors with roll-up ramps, baggage claim was outdoors, I don’t remember any carry-on luggage options and in general, flying was much less a pain in the rear than it is today. One airline, Hughes Airwest (as in Howard Hughes), was know as “Air Worst” beacuase of delays and cancellations.

    (On another topic, the “search” function on your blog doesn’t seem to be functional the last week or so. Is it broken or am I taking operator error to new levels?)

    [I just tried the search function and you’re right, Bob. I’ll alert the proper authorities. — DA]

  • I haven’t read your article yet, but I look forward to reading about the history of the sale of the airport. (I recently saw Howard Snider in connection with a Kiwanis event, but failed to ask him about that period.)

    I wasn’t in California in the 1960s, however. My first experience with Ontario International Airport (I refuse to use the “LA/Ontario” term) was in the fall of 1983. I had graduated from college in Portland, Oregon but was not finding permanent work up there. The college’s job placement office put me in touch with a company in a place in California called Rancho Cucamonga, and told me that I had to fly to Ontario to get there.

    Accepting the job placement person’s claim that flying to Ontario would actually get me to California, I boarded the plane in Portland, flew south, and landed in a warm, sunny place that was different than Portland. I walked down the stairs off the plane, then walked across the runway to get to the terminal building. Odd, I thought.

    Non-airport asides: I stayed at the Red Lion during my visit. The interview was conducted at an office in the Cucamonga Business Park at Archibald and Arrow. The boss had a north-facing window with an unobstructed view of the mountains. (Kaiser Steel had already closed, so there was no pollution.) I accepted the job offer.

    Of course, the biggest change after that occurred a couple of decades later, when Terminals 2 and 4 were opened. My daughter and I attended the open house, which would be the last time that any of us would walk on the runway at the airport. After that, we all used a skywalk to get from the gate directly onto the plane, just like the big airports.

    The new terminals were great, and were a vast improvement over the old terminal (though perhaps lacking in charm), with a number of facilities on the second floor that you could visit as you were seeing someone off, or waiting from someone to return.

    Needless to say, that all changed within a year or two, when the second floors of both terminals were closed to everyone except passengers as part of the post-9/11 response.

    P.S. The company that hired me in 1983 has since relocated to South Carolina. I don’t know what their local airport is like.

  • Mike Guerin

    As a kid growing up, fascinated as most kids were with airplanes, my folks would take me to watch comings and goings. Problem was, there were not many comings and goings. Fairchild F-27 turboprops from Bonanza, Lockheed Electras from Western and the occasional charter. Highlights were also the F-102’s then stationed at the Air National Guard hangar, and the rare fog-caused closure of LAX, which diverted “real” jets to ONT. There is a great overhead b/w pic somewhere in your archives of an ONT absolutely full with diverted planes from LAX sometimes in the 60’s.

    Lastly, there was the Jerry Lewis movie filmed at the old (actually, time-wise, middle) terminal: I believe it was called “Yours Mine and Ours”?

  • Annie

    To get a good idea of what Ontario Airport was like in the ’60s and earlier, just visit the current Long Beach Airport. With the exception of security screening, it’s basically still 1960 at Long Beach, IMO. Baggage is still outdoors in Long Beach. Boarding and unboarding there still entails a walk across the tarmac and up the steps into the plane — often loading and unloading from front and rear exits to speed things up.

  • Erik

    I wrote the following comment on the IVDB page:

    I do not understand why LAWA can’t require the U.S. and Foreign airlines that service LAX with multiple flights to their respective hubs to then serve ONT with one flight a day (for U.S. airlines) and 3 flights a week (for Foreign airlines)?

    If LAX is the Crown Jewel they want, make ’em also serve ONT!

    And some companies, like those flying to Asia and Latin America, might discover that serving ONT a few times a week is more attractive to some of their Southern California customers than forcing them to go all the way to the ocean to catch one of their 4 or 5 daily flights at LAX.

    In the meantime, how about a FlyAway bus to ONT from Union Station, please!

    I add that LAX really is overloaded. Yes, the runways rarely have line-ups but the terminals are SOOO crowded. There are few, if any, available gates for new airlines. And LAWA wants to tear down and rebuild the Terminals 1-2-3 side of World Way. Why not utilize all the extra capacity at ONT during this reconstruction?

  • Warren Halvorson

    I read your article with interest. I remember the Ontario Airport in the 1960’s at the old terminal.

    There was no security screening and I would check in at the counter and then walk over to the entry to the gate where the gate agent took the boarding pass and we would go outside and stand by the fence. When the plane arrived, the stairs went up to the entry and we climbed the steps to get in.

    But Bonaza was a little different. If I remember correctly the stairs were on the door.

    The last time that I was in the old terminal was about 1988/89 when I had to pick someone up. I came back to Upland for a high school reunion in 1999. When my wife made the reservations — she asked if I wanted to fly into LA or Ontario (the fare was the same). All I could remember was the old terminal, so I opted for LA (big mistake).

    I drove down to the terminal to show my wife why I did not want to fly into Ontario and found it abandoned. My father had worked for Lockheed Aircraft Service and all those buildings were abandoned.

    [ONT was having abandonment issues — but with the new terminals, that wasn’t a bad thing. Thanks for the comments from Atlanta, Warren. — DA]

  • Ray B

    Hi David,

    Ill share an experience from 1952. I was 16 years old and working at the Pomona airport for flying time. When students did their night flying, they left the airplane at the Ontario airport because Pomona had no lights for night landings. Someone would fly the plane back to Pomona the following morning.

    I had a solo license at the time, so one morning a flight instructor (years later he became Pomonas Chief of Police) and I took off from Pomona in a 65 horsepower 1946 Aeronca Champion with no radio and headed to Ontario.

    The weather was calm in Pomona, but extremely strong Santa Ana Winds were blowing in Ontario. The control tower gave us a green light and we landed on the diagonal runway (no longer there), which was safer because it headed more directly into the wind.

    We came to a complete stop in the middle of the runway and Phil got out. The tower gave me a green light and I took off leaving Phil on the runway. The wind was so strong I could gain altitude, but not much forward motion. I was at pattern altitude before reaching the end of the runway so I turned the plane around and headed to a calm Pomona.

    [“A calm Pomona.” There’s a phrase you don’t hear much anymore. — DA]

  • Dean

    I remember going on field trips to the airport in the late ’80s and getting to actually tour the whole thing — not many off limits areas back then. We left with little gold wings, pencils, etc — I’m sure I still have some of those goodies somewhere.

    I also have memories of being able to walk family members all the way up to the gate. Now all you get to do is a driveby — push ’em out of the car with their luggage and offer them a quick hug before you get whistled at to move away from the loading zone curb.

    [The skies may still be friendly but the airports aren’t. — DA]

  • Bob House

    Sadly, the skies are no longer friendly . . . The “friendly skies” tagline was used by United until 1996. The current slogan and ad campaign, since 2004, is “It’s time to fly.” And prospective airline customers respond, “What?”

  • Scott in RC

    One thing I remember that hadn’t been mentioned was waiting for your luggage at the outdoor, curbside area. Everytime we traveled, which wasn’t much in the 70’s, it always seemed to be very hot. So you would have to wait outside for your baggage at that carousel in the sweltering heat. There were two areas, one at each end of the terminal, where you could go to get your luggage and you were separated from the world by a block wall and no doors. Obviously, security was minimal.

    The last time I was over there was to see George W. Bush and Air Force One fly out of there. I was parked in the old parking lot. At the time, pretty much everything was as I remember, except a lot quieter.

  • Cheryl

    My boyfriend and I would park on Archibald Ave east of the runways, and watch the planes land, coming in above our heads. Archibald, from Mission going north, was a 2 lane road with nothing but fields all around. There were few street lights, and it was a perfect “make-out spot.”

  • Very nice article, I can see that nearly all have been said in different ways, I have also some nice souvenirs about the Ontario airport. It is where I met my wife when I fetched my uncle to be in Ontario. What I can say, “it was pretty smaller and crowded than now.”

  • Jeff McNulty

    In the late 70’s my grandmother would take me to Archibald east of the airport. She would pick grapes from the abandoned vines and I would watch the planes go roaring overhead. They were so close you felt you could reach out and touch them. Then back to grandma’s house for some tasty grape juice.

  • Barbara Chamberlain

    My boyfriend at the time was going to Law School in San Diego in 1970. I would fly down to see him on PSA for $8 one way. There was also AirCal if anyone else remembers that airline also. $8 would fly you up north too! Back then that was a lot of money for me.

    [Eight bucks! That’s like a cheap lunch now. — DA]