AS LAX STRAINS, OUTLYING AIRPORT CAN'T LURE ENOUGH FLIERS TO NEW TERMINAL

While Los Angeles International Airport is bursting at the seams and awaits a possible $12 billion expansion, Ontario International Airport has a new $270 million terminal that on many days resembles a ghost town more than a bustling travel center.

In fact, in its first full year of operation, the new terminal served a jump in Ontario's passenger volume of only 2 percent, to about 6.6 million people. By comparison, when Orange County's John Wayne Airport opened a new terminal 10 years ago, passenger volume rose about 10 percent in the first year.

That leaves Ontario Airport operating at two-thirds of its current capacity of 10 million annual passengers; at its current rate of growth, it would take at least 15 years to near that figure.

What's more, a marketing campaign aimed at boosting passenger traffic at Ontario is months away. And a policy of diverting traffic from crowded LAX to spacious Ontario may be next to impossible to implement.

All this has disappointed concession operators and local business boosters in Ontario, who are growing impatient.

"We were led to believe that a new state-of-the-art terminal would lead to an immediate increase of somewhere between 7 percent and 10 percent in the number of people boarding planes," said John Thomas, general manager of CA1 Services Inc.'s Ontario Airport concessions. "That was in the bid documents sent out by the airport, and it's what we based our bid on. The reality has been a severe disappointment, to say the least. Our sales do not justify the rent payments guaranteed in the contract."

To save costs, Buffalo, N.Y.-based CA1 which operates 12 food concessions at Ontario has laid off about half of the 240 employees it started with when it entered into the contract around the time of the terminal opening.

Airport officials, experts and observers say a combination of factors has kept the lid on passenger volumes at Ontario, despite the new terminal:

-Ontario remains hard to access for the region's highest-propensity air travelers, most of whom live on the Westside.

-Thanks to a lack of competition on many routes, round-trip fares from Ontario can sometimes cost hundreds of dollars more than at LAX, prompting even those who live nearby to travel an hour or more to LAX to catch flights.

-Landing and terminal fees have jumped to finance the new terminal, and those increases have been passed on to travelers in the form of even higher fares.

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