Judge: Ontario's Lawsuit for Control of ONT Airport Can Continue

Lawyers representing L.A. and Los Angeles World Airports had sought a dismissal of the case.

Travelers pass through L.A./ Ontario International Airport. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Travelers pass through L.A./ Ontario International Airport. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

A lawsuit by Ontario, which is trying to wrest control of Ontario International Airport from Los Angeles amid allegations the airport will go under without a leadership change, can move forward, a Riverside County judge ruled Wednesday.

Lawyers representing L.A. and Los Angeles World Airports submitted motions asking Superior Court Judge Gordon Burkhart to summarily dismiss all of Ontario's claims based on a lack of foundation, but the judge denied the motions.

"He essentially said, 'Ontario, you've persuaded me, and all of your claims can go forward,"' attorney Roy Goldberg, one of several lawyers representing Ontario, told City News Service.

Attorneys for Los Angeles were not immediately available for comment.

The next hearing in the case is a Dec. 2 status conference at the Riverside Historic Courthouse.

According to Goldberg, there are no active negotiations between the parties, but he hoped that the recent change of leadership at Los Angeles City Hall would translate to a settlement and avoid lengthy litigation.

"We're looking forward to working with the new mayor, Eric Garcetti," Goldberg said.

The plaintiffs are alleging breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty against Los Angeles World Airports, a municipal agency that also runs Los Angeles International and Van Nuys airports. LAWA has been in control of Ontario since 1985 and maintains there is no evidence of a failure to faithfully manage the facility.

Ontario wants the Joint Powers Agreement that placed the airport under LAWA's regional authority dissolved, alleging that the agency -- and by extension, the city of Los Angeles -- has neglected the field and left it at a competitive disadvantage by keeping ramp fees high while lowering them at LAX in order to draw more traffic to that facility.

Ontario filed its suit in June after negotiations between officials from LAWA and Ontario hit an impasse. One of the chief stumbling blocks was L.A.'s request for a $475 million payment to surrender control of Ontario Airport. According to LAWA, nearly $500 million has been invested in runway and other terminal upgrades since the late 1990s.

Supporters of the "Set Ontario Free" campaign made a counter-offer of $50 million cash, as well as offered to  assume debts attached to the airport, Goldberg said.

Negotiations with the administration of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on an ownership transfer had stalled by the time he left office.

Most inland governing bodies, including the Riverside City Council, back an independent Ontario Airport. Last year, the Ontario International Airport Authority was formed to handle a transfer of ownership.

The OIAA commissioned a study indicating that, without steps to increase the airport's visibility through general promotional campaigns and direct marketing to airlines, the field's future prospects will continue to dim.

Passenger loads at the airport have fallen 40 percent -- from 7.2 million to 3.9 million annually -- since 2007, according to the study, which noted that at the current rate, passenger levels will fall below 2 million by 2024, costing the regional economy an estimated $430 million in lost annual economic activity.

LAWA officials say Ontario's decline corresponds with the Inland Empire economy's overall slide beginning in 2008.

– City News Service.


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