AA, JetBlue Do the Long Beach Shuffle

City officials make a deal to share slots at popular Southern California alternative (to LAX) airport

By: Jerry Chandler

A truce in the Battle of Long Beach.

Animated by American Airlines’ threat to sue for more takeoff and landing slots, the city pushed for an agreement in which the pocketport’s prime carrier, JetBlue, will relinquish five of its 27 slots. American gets three of those slots; Alaska Airlines two.

“The airlines agreed on a plan that works for everybody,” contends Long Beach Airport spokeswoman Sharon Diggs-Jackson.

Because of noise considerations, LGB is one of the most constrained airports in the nation. In aggregate, large (i.e., non-commuter) airlines can only operate 41 departures per day.

In the wake of the agreement, by this summer, the LGB line-up should look like this:

JetBlue: seven daily nonstops to New York-JFK, three nonstops to Washington Dulles, six departures to Oakland, three flights to Las Vegas, and one departure to Salt Lake City;

American: five daily nonstops to Dallas/Fort Worth, three to JFK. To work under the slot constraints, AA drops LGB-Chicago O’Hare service March 2; America West: five flights per day to Phoenix;

Horizon Air (Alaska’s regional airline): three nonstops to Seattle/Tacoma. Because they’re commuter slots, these don’t figure into the 41 allocated for large jets.

It’s important to note that not all carriers, such as JetBlue, are now using all the slots they’re allocated. JetBlue has until May 2004 to use all 22 of its slots, or lose the unused portion. Alaska is expected to start using its two mainline jet slots for service to Sea-Tac some time in the future.

By far, the hottest market is the East Coast. By late June, JetBlue and American will loft 10 daily nonstops to New York’s JFK JetBlue seven, and AA three.

So hot is the market that a respected Marina del Rey, Calif.-based transportation consultant said he’s staying out of the kitchen. Long Beach is no longer the trendy boutique airport it was a couple of years back when JetBlue set up shop. “It’s gone from being a ‘cute little airport,’” said Jack Keady, “to being a quite congested facility.”

Now, the original parking lot is supplemented by a remote lot, and passengers rather than crowding into the smallish terminal often wait outside.

Keady predicts that the influx of new fliers boarding transcons this summer will tremendously tax the tiny airport. Because of that, he is shying away from LGB.

“I don’t think [congestion] is worse than at other airports,” maintains Diggs-Jackson. She concedes, however, that “10 times” more passengers depart LGB today than in 2001. “I think,” she said, “we’re handling the crowds well.”

Airlines would like to see those crowds grow, and with them the terminal facilities at Long Beach. What’s holding back expansion is the love/hate relationship the good citizens of the coastal city have with their art-deco airport. They love the convenience, and they hate the noise.

Keady is optimistic that, eventually, Long Beach city officials will expand the number of slots at the LAX alternative. “The maximum number of slots is related to how much total noise is generated,” he said. Airlines believe if the city goes back and does its homework, and reviews noise trends, that there could be a legal increase in the number of slots.

Most airlines are out to make money at LGB. But that wasn’t the main impetus, believes the transportation consultant, behind American’s threat to sue if it wasn’t granted more slots. Keady thinks Long Beach constitutes a defensive beachhead for AA in the LA Basin. To some extent, he said, “American’s philosophy is that if people are going to desert LAX and go out of Long Beach for low fares, you might as well at least keep them in the family rather than let them go to JetBlue.”

From JetBlue’s perspective, LGB is very much about making money. “Obviously,” said spokeswoman Fiona Morrison. “We keep adding flights. There’s definitely a market in Long Beach.”

Now, the question is: Is that market too big for Long Beach Airport?