The decision by JetBlue to relinquish nearly a third of its flight slots at Long Beach Airport could have a huge effect on the future makeup of local air-travel, but first other airlines will have to express interest in filling the void.
Even after giving back 10 of its slots, JetBlue still will have the largest presence at Long Beach Airport with 24 slots, but the move creates an opening for competitors to expand their foothold in the city.
The slots given up by JetBlue had already been allocated through September 2019 to other airlines for use on a temporary basis because they were not being used by JetBlue, but now a city process will permanently award them to other airlines.
JetBlue has been one of the airport’s largest tenants since arriving in 2001 when it made Long Beach its second focus city. It’s also had a community presence, sponsoring events like the Long Beach Marathon. But it has also been at odds with the city in a very public way over the past few years.
The move to give up the slots was preceded by a City Council decision last year to institute new rules regarding slot usage at the airport, raising the minimum annual usage for a flight slot to 85%.
That vote changed the minimum numbers of flights per year from 208 to 310 per slot and included a provision that would strip away slots from airlines not meeting those standards.
Earlier this month, the airline was notified that it was not meeting those usage requirements, and late Tuesday night it informed the city it would be giving back 10 slots, some of which were temporary.
City leaders have said they’re optimistic other airlines will want the newly open slots.
“While we’re sad to see JetBlue reduce flights at Long Beach Airport we’re confident that the airport will maintain its demand as it consistently ranks as one of the best in the United States,” said Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, whose district encompasses the airport. “We’re confident that many airlines will be looking to expand services in Long Beach.”
In a statement issued Wednesday evening, City Manager Pat West said that Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Delta Airlines had all expressed interest in the open slots. He said the slots will be awarded in rounds where each airline will have an opportunity to claim one slot per round.
The sequence for the selection of the seven permanent slots has Hawaiian picking first and Southwest last, and the sequence for the three supplemental slots has Delta picking first and Hawaiian picking last.
Airlines will have the option not to select slots so it’s unclear how the seven permanent slots and remaining supplemental slots will be allocated.
While Hawaiian will have the first opportunity to build on its single slot allocation, Southwest (six slots) could choose to continue to increase its presence, something it has done since starting service in Long Beach in June 2016.
It received its four initial flight slots through an annual noise budget analysis process where the airport has the ability to create additional slots if the noise created annually by the airport falls below what the city’s noise ordinance allows for.
Since then, Southwest has added two permanent slots and absorbed other unused slots on a temporary basis allowing its share of slots to swell to double digits.
A factsheet posted to its website stated that Southwest would offer up to 15 departures per day out of Long Beach starting in March 2019. It currently flies to Denver, Las Vegas, Oakland, Sacramento and San Jose. However, many of those are temporary or supplemental slots that could go away if JetBlue begins flying a higher frequency.
The airport didn’t respond Wednesday to a question about what airlines had reached out about the newly vacated slots.
In a statement, Adam DeCaire, Vice President of Network Planning at Southwest, said the airline is working with the city to acquire more slots.
“Our customers instantly embraced our service from day one and we’ve worked since then, through a semi-regular process, to utilize unused slots to offer additional flights and meet a demand we know exists for more service at Long Beach from California’s largest and most preferred air carrier,” he said.
Airlines with smaller footprints at Long Beach like Delta could also be beneficiaries. Delta’s main hub is in Atlanta with American’s being in Dallas. But it has expressed interest in the past and could choose to replace some of its temporary slots with permanent ones.
In a analysis of its key markets, Delta’s website lists LAX, Ontario, Santa Ana and Burbank. It does not list Long Beach. A request to Delta and American to clarify its intentions for future operations at Long Beach Airport went unreturned.
According to Delta’s company data, it operates about 170 daily flights out of LAX and last summer began investing nearly $2 billion in terminal upgrades there. American Airlines flies over 200 daily flights out of LAX according to company figures and maintains large presences at San Diego International Airport (31), John Wayne (18) and Ontario International Airport (10).
It has three flight slots at Long Beach.
A spokesperson for Delta said that the airline continues to “be interested in acquiring additional slots at Long Beach Airport” but wouldn’t comment further.
American is not on the list of allocation order published by the city because it hasn’t inquired about temporary slots in the past, but that does not bar it from doing so now that new slots have opened up.
Vacating the slots is a new chapter in the public feud between JetBlue and the city that took off leading up to and after the City Council’s decision to block the airline’s request to build an international terminal in January 2017.
Since then, the city has taken a number of measures that the airline has alleged were targeted attacks against its operations. JetBlue, a habitual offender of the city’s late-night noise curfew, saw the city double the base fine for those violations to $6,000 per offense in August 2017.
JetBlue then announced it was cutting service in Long Beach as part of its revised West Coast flight plan in April 2018, a plan that included increasing service at airports in Burbank and Ontario.
In June 2018, the airline sought to appeal $96,000 in fines assessed to it for late-night violations but withdrew the appeal with no explanation. It blamed the tardy planes on issues related to weather and other airports’ air traffic control towers ordering the planes not to take off, things the Long Beach contended did not exempt the airline from having its flights land on time.
In November 2018, the city announced it would soon implement a rule that would penalize airlines that weren’t using flight slots a certain percentage of time every month, quarter, and year, with the latter’s floor being set at 85%, or roughly six flights per week per slot.
JetBlue called the move “discriminatory” and Robert Land, the airline’s vice president of government affairs, characterized the vote as counter to the city’s claims of being “an open, diverse city with a vibrant pro-business growth mentality.”
Land did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
It’s expected that the allocation of the slots will be figured out before October, the month that airlines will begin using any new slots acquired through the city’s process.
Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz__LB on Twitter.
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