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Quiet Times at Long Beach Airport
December 11, 2014 -- Restricted by a city noise ordinance to just 41 full-size and 25 commuter flights a day, Long Beach Municipal Airport will be a little quieter next month when Alaska Airlines leaves the scene.
Seattle-based Alaska and its Horizon Air commuter subsidiary are exiting the Seattle-Long Beach run on January 5, a few months after it dropped Long Beach-Portland service. Both routes were "under-performing," according to a recent Alaska Air presentation to security analysts.
Alaska's departure leaves Long Beach (LGB) with just three commercial carriers. JetBlue Airways operates 32 flights a day to about a dozen destinations. US Airways Express has five daily flights to its Phoenix hub and Delta Connection operates four to its Salt Lake City hub.
The noise ordinance, which makes it hard for the airport to attract airlines, exacerbates Long Beach's other problem: geography. Long Beach is being squeezed by Los Angeles International (LAX) to the north and John Wayne/Orange County (SNA) to the south. Long Beach is just 23 miles from both and, despite California's notoriously congested freeways, business travelers gravitate to LAX and SNA because they have so many more flight options.
The loss of Horizon comes at a pivotal time for LGB, currently North America's 77th-busiest airport (measured by passenger traffic), according to the Airport Council International. According to the Department of Transportation, Long Beach ranks 72nd with about 2.7 million passengers in the 12 months ended in August. That's about 5 percent lower than during the previous 12 months and a fraction of the nearly 50 million travelers who used LAX and the more than 8 million flyers using SNA.
Meanwhile, the City of Long Beach, which decades ago imposed the flight limitations to assuage noise-sensitive residents, has invested heavily in its hometown airport. And more spending is planned.
About $45 million was invested in a dramatic concourse completed in 2012 for JetBlue, the airport's anchor tenant. With massive glass windows providing panoramic runway views, high ceilings, a courtyard with both live and neon palm trees, a half dozen new shops and reasonably priced restaurants, Long Beach feels more like a resort than an airport. There's a large patio with tables and umbrellas, a firepit and a relaxed ambiance. Security lines are short and move fast. Up next on the construction calendar is a car-rental center to replace the trailer that currently houses the airport's six rental firms.
But Long Beach's other passenger concourse is virtually empty. And with flight restrictions created by the noise ordinance, airport officials are constrained in proactively recruiting other carriers. One senior airport official says LGB does little more than respond to occasional airline queries for its few available slots.
That could change when 41-year-old Bryant Francis takes over as the airport's $198,000-a-year executive director. Ironically, Francis, who currently holds the same title at the airport in Shreveport, Louisiana, comes aboard on January 5, the same day Alaska and Horizon exit.
When I reached Francis at his current job in Shreveport, he declined to discuss his plans for Long Beach. But he's already being warned by vocal locals not to try to lift the lid on current flight restrictions.
Rae Gabelich, a former city councilwoman, told the Long Beach Press-Telegram last month that "it's critical that [Francis] understands the significance of the [noise] ordinance and not compromise the quality of life of people who are impacted by airport operations every day."
On the bright side, Long Beach Airport almost looks like a movie set and is a pleasure to navigate. While the two–year-old Jet Blue concourse is crisply contemporary, the main terminal, which dates to 1941, is a blend of Streamline Moderne and Art Deco. It looks like the set of a black-and-white European movie. In fact, several staffers say part of their job is debunking the myth that the final scene of Casablanca was filmed at Long Beach Airport. The "Here's looking at you, kid" scene on the fog-shrouded runway with an Air France DC-3 idling in the background was filmed at tiny Van Nuys Airport, 35 miles to the north.
But Long Beach does have some real-life aviation history. Howard Hughes' immense Hercules H-4 flying boat, the all-wooden Spruce Goose, made its only flight in 1947 at Long Beach Harbor. Long Beach also attracted early ballooners and bi-planes. Long Beach Airport has always been a busy military facility, too, especially during World War II. But LGB's military glory years are behind it, especially since Boeing says that it will end production next year of the C-17 cargo jet at its Long Beach assembly facility.
Ironically, business travelers don't miss the past. "I fly into Long Beach these days for the convenience and because I have no issue with JetBlue like I do with the other, established airlines," says Kevin Butler, a public-safety consultant who was working on a laptop.
And San Francisco-based George Gayl says he tries to book flights into Long Beach "because of its compact size. Everything is quicker and easier here and I get through security faster. LAX is just too stressful."
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