ONT to betting things
CEO, Atif Elkadi, tells Joe Bates more about the transformation in Ontario International Airport’s fortunes over the last five years and its impressive recovery from the global pandemic.
Southern California’s Ontario International Airport (ONT) is in a good place right now with ambitious owners, a committed and forward-looking management team, and more airlines and a bigger route network than before the global COVID pandemic.
Indeed, the airport has reported that passenger numbers through its facilities has exceeded pre-pandemic levels since March 2022.
If, as anticipated, the trend continues for the rest of the year, passenger volumes will exceed the 5.5 million which passed through ONT in 2019, ensuring that it regains its status as one of the US’s fastest growing airports and certainly right at the front of the queue in terms of the recovery from COVID.
So, how has it achieved this much envied status? Well, the catalyst for change for ONT was without doubt when the city of Ontario and San Bernardino County assumed responsibility for operating and developing the former Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) run airport in November 2016.
For sure LAWA had invested in the airport, but with its prime asset and top priority, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), being located just 55 miles away, many locals, led by Ontario city council member and now president of the Ontario International Airport Authority (OIAA) Board of Commissioners, Alan Wapner, felt that a 100% ONT focused owner could bring out the best in the gateway.
And history has proved them right as ONT reversed its traffic decline in early 2017 when on a percentage basis the airport experienced higher growth than LAX for the first time since 2007. A new, non-stop international route to Taipei (China Airlines) followed in 2018, and traffic numbers have more or less been on the rise ever since.
Putting this in some kind of perspective, ONT CEO, Atif Elkadi, says: “Passenger volumes at the airport increased by 31% between ONT’s return to local control and the start of the global pandemic about three-and-a-half years later.
“During this time we secured new airlines and introduced new destinations to Taipei, New York and Florida, and even during the pandemic we managed to add popular routes to Latin America [San Salvador, El Salvador] and Hawaii [Honolulu], Charlotte and Austin, domestically.
“The new additions helped ONT became one of the first US airports to exceed pre-pandemic levels earlier this year, and with the support of our board and our great staff, I am confident that this upward trajectory will continue.
“We are located at the centre of Southern California, which is a very large area with a population of around 24 million people and a rich and diverse economy, so the potential to develop the airport was always there, it just needed an owner with a laser beam focus on its development.”
The global appeal of Southern California
Elkadi, who wishes to make it clear that his comments imply no criticism whatsoever of LAWA or how it ran ONT, is also quick to note that Ontario is very much a destination in its own right and definitely not just a cheaper or more convenient alternative option to LAX for passengers and airlines.
“I am not a big fan of the word ‘alternative’ as it implies being the second best to something else when we have enough of a population around us to be their main airport,” states Elkadi.
“ONT plays a very significant role in the state’s airport system. We serve the fastest growing population and economic centre not just in Southern California, but really across the whole of the US.
“We are located at the heart of the Inland Empire [San Bernardino and Riverside counties], which is expected to grow from 4.7 million people today to more than seven million in 25 years. And, if we look at just this past year, we were the fifth fastest growing metropolitan area in the country with close to a thousand people a day moving here.”
Elkadi notes that a lot of the new residents have moved to the area from neighbouring Los Angeles and Orange counties for “new careers, business opportunities and a better quality of life”.
“We have more breathing room here as everything is quite spread out and we don’t all live on top of one another like you do in the big cities,” adds Elkadi.
He admits that the new pandemic-driven global trend of allowing staff to work from home or only go into the office one or two days a week, has also proved a significant factor in many peoples’ decisions to relocate to Ontario and San Bernardino County.
“When you factor in commute times, nearly 10 million Southern Californians live or work closer to ONT than any other airport,” Elkadi tells Airport World.
At this point it is worth mentioning that although downtown Los Angeles is just 35 miles away and, with no traffic, can be reached by road in 30 minutes, during the daily morning commute the very same journey could take upwards of two-and-a-half hours.
“If you look at the movement of people in California, people are tending to move inland, and although we might appear to have a lot of airports, every one of them has its fair share of travellers, and ONT is no exception,” says Elkadi.
“Unlike, say 20 to 30 years ago, the beauty of Southern California today is that people don’t all have to go to one particular airport to fly domestically or even internationally. Now people can choose the airport that is most convenient for them and closer to where they live and work. With our growing population, this makes ONT more appealing to locals than ever before.”
The appeal of Ontario, Bernardino County and Southern California – promoted nationally and internationally by OIAA’s “sharply focused” route development team – meant that by March 2019 the airport’s route network had increased to 10 airlines operating non-stop services to 26 destinations.
Today, it is served by 12 airlines operating services to 33 non-stop destinations including international services to Taipei, San Salvador in El Salvador and Guadalajara and Mexico City in Mexico.
The newly added airlines and destinations meant that in June 2022, ONT’s carriers operated 502 weekly departures compared to 481 in June 2019. The figures equate to 4.4% more flights and 11.9% more seats being offered at the gateway than in the same month three years ago, despite the continued impact of the global pandemic on air travel in the US and around the world.
Today’s route network ensures that domestic traffic currently accounts for more than 90% of the traffic at ONT, although the recent addition of Avianca flights to Latin America makes Elkadi confident that his airport can add more international services in the next few years, with a non-stop route to Europe being a key goal.
He notes that pre-COVID, Europe, Vietnam and the Philippines were all international hot spots for Southern Californians departing ONT, all reaching their final destinations via connecting flights from another US airport for Europe or China Airlines’ Chinese Taipei service for cities in the Asia-Pacific region.
Southwest Airlines is currently the biggest airline operator at ONT, accounting for around 41% of all passengers passing through its facilities. The top five airlines for passenger traffic at ONT is completed by American Airlines (15%), Delta (13%), Frontier (8%), and United (7%).
The busiest domestic services served from ONT are to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Denver (DEN), Phoenix (PHX), Seattle (SEA) and Sacramento (SMF), traffic to the latter being driven by the fact that it is the state capital, and a lot of elected officials live in the Ontario area.
When seeking to attract new airlines, Elkadi notes that in addition to the many attractions of Ontario and Southern California, anyone launching new services at the airport know that they have room to grow at ONT as its existing facilities are not capacity constrained or overly congested during peak periods.
This has certainly proved true for China Airlines, which after originally introducing four weekly flights between ONT and Taipei (TPE), switched to daily services before the pandemic due to the high demand for seats. The airline is set to resume the service in July 2022.
When it comes to cargo, as previously reported in Airport World, ONT is a major success story having achieved the status of being one of the Top 10 busiest cargo gateways in North America.
The airport handled nearly 900,000 tons of cargo in 2021 – double the volumes of a decade ago – and is set to handle roughly the same amount this year, Elkadi once again attributing ONT success to its Inland Empire location, which is home to Southern California’s
supply chain network.
Three major freight and e-commerce operators (FedEx, UPS and Amazon) are also based at ONT ensuring a steady flow of shipments through the airport.
Elkadi says: “Cargo is a critical part of our overall business operation and one more reason why ONT is such a key economic engine for our region.
“It is all too easy to forget the importance of cargo, which for us, is a silent revenue driver, helped, of course, by our location and nearby interstate road and rail connections. We all like to talk about passenger services, and that’s great, but cargo is a big part of our success story as well.”
Summing up ONT’s route development philosophy, Elkadi says: “Our focus remains on developing both international and domestic services.
“Nothing has necessarily been put on the backburner because of the global pandemic. In fact, it gave us the opportunity to focus on what we need to do get new routes to Europe and whether we currently have the facilities to hold all the growth that we are anticipating.”
Elkadi, who was appointed CEO of OIAA in April 2022 but has been at the airport since 2017, reveals that he is excited by the opportunities and challenges ahead for his gateway, one of which is to help finalise the master plan for the next phase of ONT’s development.
The airport recently secured $50 million in funding to begin the extensive renovation/upgrade of its runways and taxiways, and longer term is looking at whether it will need a dedicated international terminal and a transit centre to connect future transportation options potentially coming to the region.
He notes that the transport options include a zero-emissions bus rapid transit system and possibly a new tunnel linking ONT with a commuter rail station four miles away.
All the potential projects have the support of the City of Ontario, San Bernardino County Transportation Authority and local mass transportation system provider, Omnitrans.
“We are lucky to have the support of local leaders, elected officials and board members who have the vision to plan for the future before ONT becomes a victim of its own success,” comments Elkadi.
“They understand that growth will happen here, so want to make sure that we are proactive and ensure that we don’t eventually get the congestion here that you might find in other places.
“It must be remembered that when it comes to infrastructure development, we have to consider what might be required in 20 to 30 years from now, so considering whether we might need a dedicated international terminal, what it will look like and what needs to be done to make it happen, if it does, makes sense.”
The airport currently has two terminals (Terminal 2 and Terminal 4), which between them are equipped to handle around 15 million passengers per annum, although Elkadi accepts that this figure could be higher due to the rapid advancement of new technologies.
Embracing new touchless technologies
When it comes to new technology, Elkadi is more than aware of the potential operational and financial benefits it can bring, and for these reasons he says that ONT is determined to ensure that touchless technology is incorporated into everything new it does, going forward.
The new restaurants and duty free offerings set to open at ONT later this year, for example, will feature contactless ordering options, while the new Evolve store operated by one of ONT’s bigger retail partner, Hudson’s, will only boast touchless technology.
Passengers enrolled with CLEAR’s biometric identity programme are already able to fast track their way through security lanes at ONT through the use of touchless technology.
Elkadi, however, knows that providing a great customer experience is not just about technology, so the airport ensures that there are always enough people on duty in the terminals to personally assist passengers or help those that prefer the human touch.
Hosting SMART Airports & Regions Conference
Elkadi is looking forward to ONT hosting the upcoming SMART Airports & Regions Conference and Exhibition in Ontario this July, which he is confident will showcase the very best of the city and region to a global audience.
“We have a really great story to tell, and I know a lot of people say that when they talk about their brands and products, but our story of growth and development involves the whole community and not just the airport.
“We’re excited to host the event and really want the rest of the world to see what we’ve achieved, what we have to offer, and what’s to come in the future.”
ONT’s first duty free store to open this year
When it opens later this year, the new 3Sixty Duty Free store in ONT’s Terminal 2 will become the only duty free outlet in Southern California outside of the stores at Los Angeles International Airport.
And the significance isn’t lost on ONT CEO, Atif Elkadi, who says that he is frequently asked by passengers flying to Taipei why his airport doesn’t have any duty free stores.
“Travellers from Asia are traditionally high spenders in airport duty free shops, so we expect the new 3Sixty Duty Free outlet to significantly boost our retail revenues,” he enthuses.
Previously known as DFASS Group, 3Sixty Duty Free has signed a 10-year duty free concession with Ontario International Airport Authority (OIAA), which is expected to begin in late summer 2022.
In good hands
ONT certainly appears to be in good hands under the ownership of OIAA and the leadership of Atif Elkadi, whose calm manner and friendly demeanour ensure that he has quickly adapted to his new role.
In fact, when you ask him about stepping into the hot seat at ONT, he jokes that nothing much has changed for him apart from having to attend a lot more meetings!
He concludes: “I am enjoying the challenge and really looking forward to helping shape the future of Ontario International Airport and travel to Southern California.
“The Southern California Association of Governments [SCAG] has gone on record as putting our long-term capacity at a little over 30 million passengers per annum. So, we have plenty of scope for growth.”