A Southwest Airlines airliner rests on a tarmac. Photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines.
It didn’t take long for the nine new flight slots at Long Beach Airport to generate interest from the aviation industry.
Two months from the date they were first announced, and after a study session revealed that the noise levels at LGB allowed for the slots to be added, the city has drafted award letters to Southwest, JetBlue and Delta Airlines for all nine slots.
Both Southwest and JetBlue requested all nine of the available slots, but because JetBlue and Delta already operate at LGB, and the city’s allocation process gave precedence to new carriers over those incumbent, Southwest was entitled to two slots per application. Meanwhile, JetBlue and Delta were only entitled to one.
In total, Southwest was awarded four slots, JetBlue was awarded three and Delta received the remaining two slots.
The deadline to submit letters of interest was February 8, and the city received one each from the carriers that were awarded slots. While the allocation process has yet to be completed—the airlines must decide if it’s financially viable for them to operate the slots awarded to them—Southwest Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly announced the airline’s intentions to expand services into Long Beach at an employee rally in Las Vegas today.
“Long Beach would make it five for five in greater L.A. for Southwest and would give us another service point to fulfill our promise to connect our California customers, not only to what’s important, but also to where is important in planning business, vacation, or personal travel plans,” Kelly sad. “Nobody can match the value you all bring to air travel with our world-famous hospitality, and no one can offer California what we do on a daily basis, especially with the attractive addition of our low-fare service at Long Beach.”
Southwest already provides service out of Los Angeles, Burbank, Orange County and Ontario.
Letters sent from the city manager’s office to the airlines will outline requirements they must meet to begin operations at LGB and will commence a 180-day window in which they must begin operations. The airlines would have a 90-day window to make flights available for sale.
News of the slots possibly being filled drew a mixture of praise and concern from members of the city council.
“Southwest's desire to fly from Long Beach confirms what I've known all along, our terminal, our staff, our safety record: Long Beach Airport is the best way to fly,” said Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo.
Eighth District Councilman Al Austin, a staunch defender of the city’s noise ordinance and outspoken critic of last year’s decision to add flight slots, said he was disappointed that JetBlue, given its current “slot squatting”—a term Austin coined during the December study session—would try to acquire even more flight slots.
“I’m disappointed that JetBlue is actually asking for more slots because they don’t use the slots that they have to their full potential,” Austin said. “They’re not maximizing the slots that they already have.”
The expansion in the number of flight slots available was announced in December when the findings of the airport’s annual noise study found that decreasing flights and the proliferation of quieter and smaller jet engines had created a surplus in the allowable noise levels at the airport. The slots were allocated on a one year basis and will be reassessed after this year’s noise analysis.
While the city was legally obligated to offer the slots in the wake of the study’s findings, it could’ve gone the entire year without actually operating flights out of them had no airlines expressed interest. The airport’s director, Bryant Francis, said during the meeting that the airport had actually been in a position to offer more slots for at least a few years but had finally decided to act on it now.
Public comment during the December study session again displayed the airport’s surrounding communities’ apprehension to more flights and the fear that it would put the city’s noise ordinance—a document established in 1995 that establishes minimum and maximums for air traffic volume and noise levels—in jeopardy, potentially leading to lawsuits that would nullify it.
However, Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais assuaged those fears by stating that the calculations used to establish the nine new slots were done so by assuming a 95 percent utilization of the current slots, characterizing the number as “considerably conservative.” The historical 10-year average for slot utilization is about 87 percent, according to Mais.
"Even if JetBlue were to fly at 100 percent, which I believe, [historically], no air carrier has ever done at the airport, there would still be room in the budget," Mais said in December.
Declining revenues, due in part to less flights being offered by JetBlue, has been an ongoing issue for Long Beach Airport. The reallocation of some JetBlue flight routes from Long Beach to other regional airports resulted in LGB’s annual revenue dipping last year. Some members of the Airport Advisory Commission raised the question last year whether it was tied to the airline’s request for an international terminal at Long Beach, a notion that was denounced by a JetBlue spokesman, who said it was merely the result of market demands.
Company-wide passenger traffic for Southwest rose by over 11 percent in January, while JetBlue's year-to-date passenger traffic at LGB is down almost 7 percent, according to the latest airport activity report.