Unprecedented Growth

The iconic curved ceilings at Ontario International’s two terminals have been the setting for numerous films and commercials. (Ontario International/Submitted)

Ten million.

That’s the number of Southern Californians who live or work closer to Ontario International (ONT) than any other airport — an astonishing number when you consider how crowded the region’s aviation landscape is. Then again, no part of SoCal is experiencing the kind of robust population, economic and employment growth that Ontario’s primary market — the Inland Empire and San Gabriel Valley — is continuing to see.

According to the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), the IE will grow as double the pace of the rest of SoCal through 2048, as career opportunities and awareness of the region’s many assets — affordability, abundant natural amenities and popular destinations such as Ontario Mills Mall and the Toyota Arena — continue to grow.

It’s no wonder, then, that SCAG also projects ONT’s eventual passenger capacity to reach 30 million annually — five times its current levels.

The impact of all of this is significant. A 2022 study by Oxford Economics placed Ontario International’s economic impact at $3.8 billion per year, with visitors alone spending nearly $1.6 billion per year. All of that supports nearly 28,000 jobs and makes ONT the Inland Empire biggest economic driver.

It doesn’t end there:

• According to GOCAL, formerly the Greater Ontario Convention and Visitors Bureau, more than 180,000 people are employed in the leisure and hospitality industry across the IE, ranking it among the top industries in the region. Add to that the indirect and induced jobs created as a result of the hospitality sector, and it’s an industry that supports hundreds of thousands of families across the region. 

• Tourism, meetings and conventions in Greater Ontario are projected to generate more than $80 million in economic impact for the fiscal year ending June.

• Brightline West’s decision to place its planned Las Vegas-to-SoCal transit stops in Apple Valley and Rancho Cucamonga underscore the growing value that outside groups see in the IE as a destination. It’s also resulting in huge dollars being invested in the new Cucamonga Station and the nearby mixed-use developments.

• The proposed expansion plans for the Ontario Convention Center and around the Toyota Arena have set the stage for a true entertainment district in the Inland Empire, including a live performing arts theater and the California Sports Hall of Fame. Both Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga are developing housing options that align with that vision, creating a gateway to the IE unlike anything outside of Downtown LA.

ONT is at the center of all of this. Since its return to local ownership in 2016, Ontario has seen a 33% increase in passenger volumes, despite a pandemic that severely disrupted air travel across the world. In 2022, ONT was among a select group of airports that, for the full year, exceeded pre-pandemic levels. In 2023, nearly 6 million passengers will travel through Ontario, lured by convenient access, an exceptional customer experience and a growing number of flights and destinations. Today, ONT offers nonstop service to nearly two dozen destinations in the United States, Mexico, Central America and Taiwan.

On the passenger experience side, ONT has emerged as an innovation leader, introducing popular services such as ONT+, which allows the nontraveling to obtain a digital pass to access the post-security side of the two terminals — to drop off or pick up friends and family at the gate and enjoy the airport’s growing number of restaurants and shops.

All of which is something local leaders had in mind when the push to return ONT to local ownership began more than a decade ago. 

“Our community and region passionately support ONT, and we have committed to doing everything in our power to create an airport experience unlike any other,” says Alan D. Wapner, president of the Ontario International Airport Authority (OIAA) Board of Commissioners.

Today, ONT is one of the industry’s great success stories — recognized by Global Traveler magazine as the fastest-growing airport in the United States for five consecutive years. As a result of its success, ONT has hosted two international airport industry conferences in the past 12 months — a rare feat but indicative of the airport’s growing stature among airport professionals.

Accolades aside, Ontario’s priority are the customers and communities it serves. 

“We believe that going to the airport should be an adventure. It’s a philosophy that’s instilled throughout our organization as we balance our extraordinary growth with the convenience and positive traveler experience that have been our hallmark,” said Atif Elkadi, OIAA’s chief executive officer.

And the best is yet to come. The OIAA Board of Commissioners is committed to developing a new international terminal and has agreed to name it — as well as the current international facility — after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a supporter of ONT’s return to local control. Exciting new transit options into and out of the airport have been proposed or are under development. These include a zero-emission bus rapid transit system and a proposed underground transit connections between the airport and the Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink station.

Inside the airport’s two terminals, new restaurants and retail experiences are opening up, premium airport lounges are up and running, and plans are underway for expanded and streamlined security checkpoints. Newly launched initiatives such as the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program are creating even greater access for travelers — in the case of Sunflower, providing a simple tool for passengers to voluntarily share that they have a disability that might not be immediately apparent, and would need a little extra help, time and understanding while at the airport. 

“The last thing we’re ever going to do is rest on our laurels,” Elkadi said. “We know we need to continue to innovative and continue to build on all that has been done up until now to make Ontario the destination of choice for millions of Southern Californians.”