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Flashback Fridays--A Quarter Century of Southwest Airlines and Ontario

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That’s Ontario, California as opposed to the Canadian province of Ontario, and it’s amazing the number of people that confuse the two.  No matter, Southwest Airlines has been a part of the Ontario Airport and the Inland Empire Community for a quarter-century, and I thought this would be a good time to look back at the history of this important Southern California airport.

Unlike the two other SoCal airports we have examined in Flashback Fridays (LAX and Burbank), Ontario has a relatively short history when it comes to commercial airline service, even though the field has been around since 1923.  During World War II, the airport served as a major training base for the Army Air Force, and after the war, Lockheed, Douglas, and Northrup all had facilities at the airport.  Although commercial service began in 1949, it was primarily shuttle service to Los Angeles and a few other points within the state. 

Probably the biggest claim to fame for Ontario in the 1960s was as the fog-free alternate for LAX.  My dad managed the LAX Ticket Counter for Continental from 1963 through 1967, and I can remember him talking about ONT operations.  Evidently the airlines kept enough ground equipment based there so that they could operate their flights during the times that fog socked in LAX.  (Remember that landing visibility requirements were a lot higher then because aircraft and airports lacked the sophisticated instrument landing systems we have today.)

photo courtesy S.M. Reeves

The Ontario terminal building was a nondescript facility, similar to many small town terminals from that era.  S. M. Reeves kindly allowed us to use his photo above from 1970 of a Western 737 parked at the building.  Airline geeks like me will notice that the 737 is wearing the “Indian Head” livery, which was phased out early in the 737’s career at Western.  The photographer tells me that he grabbed the shot while he was walking from his Hughes Airwest DC-9 to the flightline fence at the terminal.  Incidentally, the front of the terminal “played” the role of Miami International in the Steven Spielberg's 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can, that starred Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Southwest began service to Ontario on May 15, 1985 with five daily flights to Phoenix, and we offered a $9.00 fare for nine days. As we see above, our ticket counter was dressed up for the big event.The photo below shows our first arrival.

Inside, a Dixieland band played for departing Customers, and what airport opening wouldn't be complete without kids and beautiful women?

(Thanks to the PR Team at LA World Airports for the four photos above.)

In 1971, the airport handled one million passengers, and in 1978 it handled two million annual users.  In 1986, the annual volume was four million passengers, and by 1992, Ontario had six million annual passengers.  The old terminal was literally bursting at the seams, and in the photo below, you can see that our operation utilized pre-fab gates and Operations offices. 

Not much had changed (below) since the photo of the Western 737 above.  Ontario was one of our last airports to do away with outside boarding and that occurred on September 27, 1998, when the new terminal opened for business.

Ontario now has a modern facility that will serve its community for many years to come.  Congratulations to our Ontario Employees for a quarter century of service to our Southern California Customers.


1 Comment
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My first ever flight on Southwest was ONT-SMF, and it was out of the old pre-fab buildings.