A study session divulging the findings of a feasibility study for a potential international terminal at Long Beach Airport spanned nearly three and half hours at last night’s city council meeting, but yielded little new information as the Long Beach City Council now trudges forward to a final vote scheduled for late January.
The session was the third of its kind since the $350,000 feasibility study conducted by the Jacobs Engineering Group was completed and released October 4. The city’s airport advisory commission and its economic development commission had both held study sessions prior to the council’s Tuesday night meeting, but this session gave the public something the others lacked: a chance to speak.
Tuesday’s study session was called for by Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga who, along with councilmembers Al Austin and Daryl Supernaw, received a hero’s welcome from the audience when they finally walked out of closed session nearly an hour after the session was scheduled to begin. The three members of the council have voted in lockstep against the airport terminal at every juncture since JetBlue officially requested the study in February 2015.
Long Beach Airport Director Jess Romo summarized the the study’s findings by asserting the existence of a demand for international travel in the region, pointing to increasing figures at other regional airports like Los Angeles International and John Wayne in Orange County. If a terminal were to be approved at Long Beach the study projects that of the 50 daily flights permitted, 6-8 of them would be of the international variety. He noted that the city’s governance over the airport was limited to the cap on flights and not where they fly to and from.
“It’s a very complex and comprehensive ordinance but it’s purpose is to limit aircraft noise, it does not speak to the limitation of aircraft routes,” Romo said.
The study also projected that the construction of the terminal could translate to $1.8 billion in regional output, but when taken down to a Long Beach-centric examination, the estimations were much smaller. Under that lens, construction of the facility would equate to 47 jobs and $6.7 million in one-time output and 80 jobs and $7 million output on an ongoing basis.
“The few jobs and the economic benefits that have been stated really are not worth the risk in my opinion,” Austin said.
The perceived risk stems from the city’s history of having its noise ordinance challenged via lawsuit by airline companies trying to enter the Long Beach market, resulting in a slow erosion of the upper limit of flights. However, the current mark of 50 flights per day for planes carrying passengers has not been moved since 1995.
That still hasn’t stopped the flood of residents showing up to meetings pleading with the council to remember its history.
In what seemed like an endless line of residents hoping to sway the council away from a yes vote on the international terminal, dozens of people waited their turns to have their concerns heard. Those grievances spanned from the report’s lack of threat assessment if an international terminal was approved for Long Beach to noise complaints and what kind of legal challenges the city could face if other airline companies wanted to move in on the Long Beach market.
The city’s noise ordinance, grandfathered legal guidelines that allow the city to set a strict cap on daily flights and noise, currently caps air carrier flights at 50 per day. Additional flight slots were granted earlier this year when the airport’s annual noise budget analysis found that due to the proliferation of quieter aircraft being flown into and out of LGB the city had to offer more slots to be in compliance with its own ordinance.
Mike Mangan, an Eighth District resident, said that at this point everything is purely speculation. He added that the noise ordinance is not a set-in-stone law and could easily fall victim to politicians that have a will to challenge it. He alluded to president-elect Trump’s chaotic cabinet appointments as a cause for alarm and asked the council to recognize the threat the next administration could pose to the city.
“It was written by politicians, it’s enforced by politicians and I think that it’s safe to say when one considers who’s going to be running the FAA in a couple months, I’ll be objective and say all bets are off if we go international,” Mangan said.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Long Beach City Attorney’s office have both issued legal opinions stating that the city does not stand an increased chance of being sued if an international terminal is approved at LGB.
Mayor Robert Garcia asked whether or not the international terminal would result in a loss of domestic travelers to the city which could wind up hurting the convention economy in Long Beach.
Speaking to the mayor’s concern, JetBlue’s Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Robert Land noted that its business model is not based on connecting flights, instead JetBlue operates focus cities with Long Beach being the only one of its six focus cities to exist on the West Coast. He agreed with the assessment made by Jacobs that international flights would only make up a small portion of its flights, adding that only a third of the airline’s network is international and historical data for US carriers is about an 80-20 split.
“We don’t connect people,” Land said. “People are coming to or leaving from Long Beach contributing to the local economy, not just passing through it.”
While the session did go into the possible designs for a terminal if it’s approved by the council next month, now that city staff is able to engage with and discuss possible plans going forward with JetBlue a clearer picture could emerge. The options laid out in the study ranged from $17.3 million to $21.5 million in construction costs and the fate of any approval could rest in the numbers.
The city has pledged $3 million toward the cost of constructing the facility, leaving a large gap between the projected costs and available dollars. JetBlue would most certainly be asked to pick up a large, if not the majority of the tab to construct the facility that currently would be used by only JetBlue aircraft at LGB. Any payment made by the city would be recovered through passenger fees assessed to travelers, projected to be about $6 per person after year two of the project.
During the previous commission meetings the idea that JetBlue could either decide against international travel or leave the airport altogether was discussed as well as how the city would safeguard itself from having an international terminal with no international travelers to charge passenger fees to.
While the specifics haven’t been hammered out because no negotiations between the city and JetBlue have taken place, the city has expressed it will require performance bonds and could rely other concessions it may negotiate with JetBlue or other interested parties seeking to use the terminal.
A vote to approve or deny JetBlue’s request is scheduled for January 24.