The “international” in Ontario International Airport is about to take off in a big way as China Airlines gets set to start daily nonstop flights in March between the Inland Empire and Taipei, Taiwan.
It’s believed to be the first scheduled, nonstop transoceanic flight from any Southland facility besides Los Angeles International Airport.
The new daily service also holds the potential to be a game changer for the region’s overseas travel market and the economies of the Inland Empire and the San Gabriel Valley, both with abundant Asian-American populations.
And the flights to Taiwan might foreshadow more Asian and some European airlines on the horizon for Ontario International, which is located just 8 miles from the eastern edge of Los Angeles County.
Ontario airport officials said they are talking with at least three airlines in China.
“They are just waiting to make sure the China Airlines flights track with expectations and then we expect they, too, will jump in,” said Alan Wapner, chair of the Ontario International Airport Authority.
He added that airport staff is in exploratory talks with several airlines in Europe.
Expectations have been running plenty high – China Airlines switched from a schedule of four weekly flights to daily service based on demand that cropped up immediately after it announced plans for the Taiwan service last fall.
All this comes just over a year after the airport split off from the control of Los Angeles World Airports, the Los Angeles city agency that also operates LAX and Van Nuys Airport – in part because Ontario and Inland Empire officials claimed LAWA was not doing enough to develop markets for the airport.
They said LAWA officials focused more on bringing additional flights into LAX and laying the groundwork for the multibillion dollar modernization projects at that airport rather than making efforts to market the Ontario facility.
Poised for growth
Ontario International is unique among operating commercial airfields in Southern California in that it has plenty of unused capacity.
Its two terminals, opened 20 years ago as part of a $270 million overhaul, have the capacity to handle 12 million passengers. They handled roughly 4.5 million passengers last year, down from a peak of 7.2 million a decade ago.
The airport has the longest runway of any commercial airport in Southern California, including LAX, so it can handle the biggest long-haul jet aircraft.
It also has U.S. Customs Bureau facilities, though airport officials now are in the midst of an $800,000 equipment expansion to allow the bureau to staff the airport 10 to 12 hours a day instead of the current four.
The airport already offers international service with two flights to Mexico with shorter haul.
Airport officials are eager to tap the long-haul market to Asia.
The airport authority voted last summer to waive landing and terminal fees for the first year any airline from Asia, Europe or Australia/New Zealand. That stands in contrast to the fees at LAX, which have been increasing to help pay for the billions of dollars in upgrades there.
Ontario also moved to boost its fortunes in Asia and Asian-American communities here with the appointment of former East West Bank executive Julia Gouw to the Ontario International Airport Authority Commission last year. Gouw accompanied an airport delegation to Taiwan last month, a trip that coincided with China Airlines decision to move to daily service from Ontario.
Gouw said that she came on as a commissioner because of her ties to the business community in the San Gabriel Valley and its large Asian-American community.
She said China Airlines executives told her they had amassed data from their years of flights out of LAX that showed more of their passengers lived closer to Ontario than to LAX.
“That’s why they knew it would be successful,” she explained.
She added that there is an extensive Taiwanese community in the San Gabriel Valley, with centers in San Marino, Arcadia and Diamond Bar.
She cited figures that Ontario International Airport officials amassed showing that of the roughly 2.5 million Asians living in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, 55 percent live closer to Ontario International than LAX.
The figures go higher for some nationalities: 65 percent of 650,000 Chinese-Americans live closer to Ontario and 75 percent of 360,000 Vietnamese-Americans.
It is the back-and-forth between these residents and their extended families and businesspeople in their respective countries of origin that is driving the demand for more airline service at Ontario, she said.
Aviation consultant Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International of Denver, who looked at the Chinese market for Ontario International Airport officials, said he expects airlines based in several Chinese cities will check out Ontario.
“There are a whole bunch of new and rapidly expanding airlines in cities like Guangzhou and Chengdu for which Ontario will be much more appealing than trying to get into a crowded LAX,” Boyd said.
Several regional leaders say the recent developments and outlook for the future indicate that Ontario International is about to become a catalyst for a major economic boost for both the San Gabriel Valley and the Inland Empire.
“Ontario International Airport is finally playing its proper role,” said Paul Granillo, chief executive of the Inland Empire Economic
Partnership, a coalition of major business interests formed to promote business in the region. “For us not to have an airport with international connectivity has been holding back the economy. So this is a very good thing for the Inland Empire.”
Granillo said that Asian business executives have often been reluctant to drive one or two hours from LAX out to the Inland Empire to scout out investments or visit local businesses.
“If you have one bad experience spending three hours stuck in traffic trying to get out of LA County, that does impact the willingness of Asian investors to do business in the Inland Empire,” he said. “With these international flights starting out of Ontario, those drives now become 20 or 30 minutes.”
And Jeff Allred, chief executive of the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership, a similar group, said the international flights to Asia will provide a big boost to the tourism and hospitality sectors.
“Tourists from Asia often prefer to lodge in the San Gabriel Valley because of the restaurants and family ties,” Allred said.
He also called the start up of overseas service from Ontario long overdue. “This should have happened 10 years ago,” he said.