If airlines don’t fully use their flight slots at Long Beach Airport, the city may soon penalize them by taking the slots away—a proposal that officials with the city’s largest carrier, JetBlue, say is aimed squarely at them.

Airport officials say the proposed amendments, to be voted on Tuesday night, are necessary to ensure that the airlines aren’t engaging in anti-competitive behavior.

The airport is requesting the City Council approve the amendments to a resolution dealing with the definition of a flight slot and the threshold an airline would have to cross for it to be considered fully utilized.

Included in the changes would be punitive measures that could be taken against airlines not fully utilizing its slots, including being stripped of slots to meet its actual flight volume and being locked out of entering the process to gain any potential extra slots awarded by the airport in the future.

Whether there are airlines waiting for an opportunity to begin service at Long Beach Airport is unclear, said Stephanie-Montuya Morisky, spokeswoman for the airport.

“We don’t know at this point because we haven’t made the offer yet,” she said. “We do know that this is an attractive place to fly and visit.”

There are currently 50 flights slots available at the airport, and an airline operating one of those slots now needs to use it 57 percent of the time over a 180-day period, or roughly four flights per day. The amendments could require an airline to use each slot at least 60 percent in any calendar month, 70 percent in any calendar quarter, and 85 percent in any calendar year.

Changes to what constitutes a flight would also mean that a plane leaving the airport without passengers—for maintenance or other reasons—would have to meet certain requirements.

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The proposals come as part of an effort from the city’s airport director to ensure that airlines are not “slot squatting” and purposefully underutilizing slots at the airport to keep competitors from either entering the airport, or from being awarded additional slots at the end of the airport’s annual noise budget analysis that sometimes results in additional temporary flight slots being awarded via a lottery process.

The city’s goal is to provide “the best possible air transportation services and opportunities to the traveling public in a manner that supports a healthy and competitive business environment,” Long Beach Airport Director Jess Romo wrote in a letter to the City Council.

Romo presented the proposed changes in May to the airport’s two largest tenants, JetBlue, which has operated out of Long Beach since 2002, and Southwest Airlines, which started service at the airport in 2016.

Barry Brown, associate general counsel operations and environment for Southwest, wrote in response to Romo that Southwest favored the proposed changes.

JetBlue, which has been in a dispute with the city since at least 2017, called the proposals unjustified and unnecessary, saying the changes “appear to be nothing more than punitive and discriminatory to JetBlue.”

“Long Beach City leaders claim to desire an open, diverse city with a vibrant pro-business growth mentality,” wrote Robert Land, senior vice president of government affairs for JetBlue. “Yet their actions towards JetBlue repeatedly prove otherwise.”

Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais said that “discriminatory” is not the right word considering the changes apply to all carriers.

JetBlue has over 30 flight slots, the most of any carrier. Southwest and Delta Airlines have 10 slots combined.

Mais noted that this particular resolution has been amended a number of times, but this is the first time the utilization rate will be changed. In 1995, it made sense to have a lower utilization rate because the local airport was not a desirable place to fly and few carriers showed interest, Mais said.

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“If the demand is there it makes sense to raise the minimum use threshold so that those flights are flown,” he said.

Regarding the threat of potential litigation by JetBlue, Mais said the city is “on very solid ground with these changes.”

JetBlue and the city have been at odds since the airline requested permission to build an international terminal, a proposal that was effectively killed in January 2017. Before the vote, elected officials accused the airline of  “slot squatting” in an attempt to force the city’s hand in favor of the terminal.

Since then the city and JetBlue have squabbled over late night flight violations—defined as flights landing or taking off between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. The city increased the fees paid under a consent decree it entered into with JetBlue, then sought an overhaul of the fine structure that could see fines as high as $10,000 per violation.

As of August, JetBlue has 160 such violations while Southwest has zero.

Earlier this year JetBlue announced it was restructuring its West Coast flight plans to include 12 less daily flights out of Long Beach, and in October the airline announced it was cutting its service to Fort Lauderdale.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story reported that Southwest and Delta have a combined six slots; the story has been updated to reflect that they have 10 slots combined.

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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