The Long Beach City Council voted 8-1 not to move forward with proposed plans for international flights out of Long Beach.
A process that started nearly two years ago when Jetblue Airways formally requested a study to determine if international flights out of Long Beach Airport were feasible came to a close Tuesday night when the Long Beach City Council voted 8-1 against moving forward with the project.
Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, after a line of questioning directed at airport staff that highlighted the marginal benefits the terminal could provide for the city—and the projects it would divert funds from—made the motion to receive and file the report, effectively ending the discussions on international flights out of the city.
“I’ve heard a lot of concern from the community on a number of aspects from FIS [International terminal],” Mungo said. “For a starting point for this evening I hope that whether you’re supportive or not supportive, I would ask you to hold your boos or applause, but I would like to make a motion to receive and file.”
The motion—once it was explained that it would end the city’s attempts to move forward with the project—drew a round of applause from the standing room-only crowd in the council chambers, as well as a delayed celebration from the overflow audience watching from the city hall lobby.
Nearly four hours later, when dozens of residents and airport employees had made their public pleas both for and against the terminal, the council’s 8-1 vote in favor of Mungo’s motion drew a prolonged standing ovation from those in the crowd holding the orange anti-international flight signs.
The airport, in particular the international terminal project, has been a hot-button issue for the communities that border it and for those long-time residents that were part of the city’s legal battles with the Federal Aviation Administration decades ago.
Those battles led to establishing the city’s noise ordinance, something that residents have defended to the teeth out of fear that airport operations could expand and affect their quality of life.
A study carried out by Jacobs Engineering, the firm awarded the job by the city council, examined market demand, economic impact, environmental compliance, security risks and the cost of the project, among other things, if it were to be approved.
It found that there was demand for these flights in Long Beach and it would provide an influx of revenue to the region; however, the impact on Long Beach would have been nominal. The cost of the facility needed to process the flights was originally quoted to run upward of $20 million but a scaled down version of the project was quoted to run around half that.
The city was positioned to contribute about $3 million of that cost but those funds would’ve been diverted from other projects that need funding at the airport like runway improvements and revamps of the facility’s baggage and ticketing area. The airport is currently about $110 million in debt and Airport Director Jess Romo noted that outside of the first few years of the project, the international terminal would not provide new revenue to the airport aside from cost recovery.
Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, whose district is not among those most impacted by flight noise, said that the decision the council made was made for those they govern, adding that no staff report or study goes read without the people that come to speak in the council chambers flashing into her mind. She rejected the notion that some council members were succumbing to political pressure to vote in a certain way.
“Most of the residents in this room are not my residents, they don’t live in my district, but you’re part of this city, Price said. “I represent this entire city. I represent your families even though you’re not voting for me.”
Mungo, who had been somewhat of a pariah for those neighborhood groups opposed to changes at the airport, experienced a polar shift in the tenor of the comments lobbed in her direction by the public. The councilwoman was praised for her change of heart on the topic, with one woman even being moved to tears by Mungo’s motion to receive and file.
“I don’t normally speak in front of groups but I had to stand today to thank you and also present an apology to Councilwoman Mungo,” one man said. “Several days ago I sent her an email in which I accused her of predisposing this issue and at the end of that email I said ‘if I’m wrong, I will apologize’. And I do apologize.”
The perceived change of heart was addressed by Mayor Robert Garcia who pointed out the difficult process that Mungo had undergone during the deliberations on the terminal project but said that her commitment to reaching a clear point in the process with all available facts on the table was unrelenting. The mayor noted that up until last night Mungo was still calling constituents and city staff to ask questions and field concerns on the pending vote.
“I’m going to be honest with you, Stacy’s never had a firm position,” Garcia said. “She’s wanted to get information, she’s wanted to move the process forward, but she’s always mentioned to me and others that she wanted to get to this point to finally make a final conclusion. And she has made, as you all know, a conclusion on this process.”
Though the opposition neighborhood groups have been the loudest—and the group with the most signs— during this years-long discussion about international flights and the Long Beach Airport, supporters of the facility showed up in large numbers, too. Among the supporters were union members, members of the JetBlue flight crews, local business leaders and the chamber of commerce.
Holding signs reading “I <3 LGB, Yes on FIS” they lobbied for the council to approve the facility, stating that the airport is an economic driver for the city and investing in it by approving the facility would only help to grow jobs and future economic growth.
Robert Land, senior vice president of government affairs and associate general counsel for Jetblue, reiterated the company’s previously-stated stance that approval of the project would not come at the cost of existing domestic flight routes. He pointed to the one-time benefits of job creation and the ongoing economic benefits that the Jacobs study put at hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the region in urging the council to vote in favor of the facility.
Upon hearing the final vote, Land sent out a statement communicating the airline’s feelings and leaving open a reassessment of future flights in the city as well as the rest of the region.
"We are profoundly disappointed that after years of delay and a city-mandated study validating the safety, security and economic positive nature of the project, that the City Council would reject the development of a Federal Inspection Station at Long Beach Airport,” Land said. “JetBlue will evaluate its future plans for Long Beach, the greater Los Angeles area and California.”
Backers of the project alleged that a vocal minority—the neighborhood group that turned out a few hundred residents for the meeting—was being held over the greater majority of the city which does not feel as passionately about the project.
Long Beach Airport directly impacts four council districts (Four, Five, Seven and Eight) with flight noise from takeoffs and landings as commuter and commercial flights fly in and out of the city. The airport’s noise ordinance allows for a maximum of 50 daily flights, a number that it has not averaged on an annual basis for some time.
A large part of the issue has hinged on the idea that opening the airport up to international flight could invite lawsuits from other carriers seeking to gain access to Long Beach to utilize the terminal if it were built. Although the city’s noise ordinance has remained unchanged since the mid-90s, it was subject to incremental increases since its inception due to legal challenges that the city lost.
Both the Long Beach City Attorney’s office and the FAA had released legal opinions on the matter in the months leading up to the meeting, stating that with or without international flights, Long Beach will always have the threat of a carrier suing to gain entry into the market.
Tuesday’s vote ends years of turmoil for both residents and council members who were inundated with calls and emails regarding the potential for the project to proceed. What JetBlue’s plans look like going forward is uncertain, but Garcia pointed out that tomorrow will be another day with one of the best airports in the country.
“We’re going to wake up tomorrow and live in the best city in the country and have the best airport anywhere in the country and we’re all going to work together to continue to make our airport the great place it is today.” Garcia said.