Why ONT’s international flights depart from (but do not arrive at) Terminal 2, and why there is no Terminal 3

I learned some fun facts during Eren Cello’s presentation to the Greater Ontario Business Council this morning, and filed those in my brain along with some other facts that I have collected over the years.

Cello is the Director of Marketing and Communications for Ontario International Airport in Ontario, California. Which, incidentally, is not in Canada.

Ontario International Airport in the 1980s and 1990s

I first became aware of Ontario International Airport in October 1983, when I flew in from Portland, Oregon for a job interview. Back in those days, you didn’t walk from the airplane straight into the terminal. Instead, you walked to a flight of stairs, went down the stairs, then walked across the runway to enter the terminal.

As Ontario and the surrounding area grew over the years, the then-owner of Ontario International Airport (Los Angeles World Airports) decided that an ambitious expansion of the airport was in order, including modern, multi-level terminals with check-in and baggage claim on the first floor, and the gates and shops on the second floor. Instead of renovating the existing terminal, LAWA decided to build two brand new terminals. These terminals were opened in 1998 and were designated “Terminal 2” and “Terminal 4.” As soon as traffic increased to the required level, LAWA would go ahead and build Terminal 3 between the two terminals.

And the old terminal, now “Terminal 1,” was closed.

Ontario International Airport Terminal 1 as of September 2021, 20 years after airport traffic changed forever.

It sounded like a sensible design and a sensible plan. What could go wrong?

Ontario International Airport in the 2000s and 2010s

Well, three years after Terminals 2 and 4 opened, 9/11 happened. This had two immediate effects.

First, the anticipated increase in passenger traffic needed to open Terminal 3 didn’t happen.

There were other alleged reasons for this which eventually led to the separation of Ontario International Airport from LAWA, but those are beyond the scope of this post. I wrote about them in a personal blog at the time; here’s an example.

Second, increased security meant that the second floors of Terminals 2 and 4 were accessible to passengers only.

The days of walking to the gate to send off departing passengers and greet arriving ones were gone forever.

And for all of those businesses that were located on the second floors of the two terminals, their customer base was cut dramatically, since non-ticketed individuals were confined to the first floors of the terminals. Until recently, those first floors only included the random vending machine to serve visitors. Only now is the situation starting to improve.

But Ontario International Airport survived 9/11, and has survived COVID (although traffic is still only at 93% of 2019 levels).

According to Cello, Ontario International Airport now serves 11 passenger airlines with nonstop flights to destinations in the United States, Mexico, Central America, and Asia.

The second most fascinating fun fact

But of all the fun facts I learned today, the second most fascinating fun fact was the reason why the international airlines are based in Terminal 2 rather than Terminal 4. No, it’s not because Southwest has so many flights in Terminal 4 that there is no room for anyone else. Actually, parts of Terminal 4 are closed; if you see a film with someone at Gate 412, you know the film is staged. See 15:08 of this video.

The reason why the international airlines are based in Terminal 2 is because that terminal is the only one designed for the large wide-body jets that go to international destinations.

Southwest Airlines, of course, has a different operating model that doesn’t need a lot of wide-body jets.

International services in the future and in the past

Incidentally, there are both short-term and long-term plans to improve the facilities for international passengers, who currently can depart from Terminal 2 but have to arrive at a completely separate “international arrivals terminal” (reviews) and go through security there.

And if you’re wondering why Ontario International Airport doesn’t have optimum service for international passengers, the “international” in the airport’s designation merely means that there is at least one existing flight to an international destination. For Ontario, trans-Pacific cargo flights existed back in the 1940s, and the first passenger flight from an international destination occurred (according to Wikipedia) on May 18, 1946, when a Pacific Overseas Airlines flight arrived from Shanghai. (This was the Pacific Overseas Airlines based in Ontario, California, not the Pacific Overseas Airlines in Siam. The Ontario company appears to have only been in existence for a year or so.)

Of course, back in 1946, international passengers didn’t have great expectations. Leaving the plane by going down a flight of stairs was the normal mode of operations; none of this walking from the airplane straight into the airport building.

The Beatles arrive at the former Idlewild Airport on February 7, 1964. Note the stairway in the background. By United Press International, photographer unknown – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c11094.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons: Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4532407

The MOST fascinating fun fact

Oh, and in case you’re wondering why the wide-body jet service is only the second most fascinating fun fact, I learned something else today.

The “Paw Squad” at Ontario International Airport has their own trading cards!

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