City Council to Vote On Making Long Beach Airport International

By: 
Sean Belk

 

After much debate and analysis over the past year, the city council at its meeting on Jan. 24 is expected to vote on whether to move forward with seeking international flights at Long Beach Airport, a highly controversial proposal that has already received criticism from the mayor and some city councilmembers. 

 

While the city council agreed to push back its decision until after the holidays, Mayor Robert Garcia and three city councilmembers during a recent study session brought up concerns about the proposal that would include building a federal inspection services (FIS) facility to provide U.S. Customs and Border Protection screening and other services. 

 

The highly anticipated decision comes after JetBlue Airways, the airport’s main air carrier, formerly requested in February 2015 that the airport consider allowing international flights, expressing a desire to tap into a growing international travel market for possible flights to Mexico and South America. About six months later, the city council agreed to commission a feasibility study conducted by consulting firm Jacobs Engineering.

 

At the Dec. 13 city council meeting, Airport Director Jess Romo presented findings from the study that concluded building an FIS facility to allow international flights could be “financially feasible” and wouldn’t pose any new security risks or threats to the airport’s noise ordinance. 

 

Findings of the study released in October state that developing an FIS facility, which would cost up to $20 million and would mostly be paid for by JetBlue in addition to imposing an initial $13-per-flight passenger facility charge on international travelers, would result in approximately 379,281 annual international passengers by the fourth year in operation.

 

The study also estimates that an FIS facility in the first five years after international service is initiated could create an additional 350 jobs and $36.4 million in additional annual economic output in the region. International business and tourist travel from the FIS facility is estimated to generate approximately 1,400 new jobs and $185.6 million annually in economic output, according to the study. 

 

However, Mayor Garcia expressed some criticism of the findings, stating that any new international flights would ultimately be at the expense of domestic flights. Further, he said transcontinental flights, such as to Washington D.C., are more in demand and are more financially beneficial to the city in terms of attracting hotel and convention business, a main economic driver for the city. 

 

“Any growth on the international side will be at the expense of domestic flights,” Garcia said. “Not all, but, for every international flight that we gain, and this is an important conversation we should have, we will be losing domestic service.”

 

The mayor’s criticism of the international airport proposal and the study’s findings were echoed by some city councilmembers, who cited hundreds of emails and comments from residents living under the airport’s flight path who have vehemently opposed the proposal over the past several months. 

 

Residents have raised concerns that such a change may cause more violations of the city’s noise ordinance, which was established in 1995, capping flights with an allowable noise budget. The noise ordinance is considered to be the strictest for any airport in the country and the world.  

 

Despite reassurances from consultants, the airport director and the city attorney’s office that adding international flights and an FIS facility wouldn’t pose any new threats to the city’s noise ordinance, residents have expressed concerns that such a change would open up the city to lawsuits from airlines seeking to challenge the restrictions. 

 

Siding with concerned residents and homeowners, 8th District Councilmember Al Austin, 7th District Councilmember Roberto Uranga and 4th District Councilmember Daryl Supernaw, who represent residents near the airport, expressed opposition to the proposal.

 

Austin said adding international flights and an FIS facility to the airport is “unnecessary,” and any potential jobs and economic benefits that may come from it would be outweighed by potential risks to security and the city’s noise ordinance. He added that allowing international flights could “significantly change the character” of the airport and the city.  

 

“The feedback that I’ve received has been resoundingly in opposition to this proposal, and most thoughtful and informed residents see this as a risky and unnecessary proposal,” Austin said. “I respect that and I agree. The few jobs and the economic benefits that have been stated are really not worth risks in my opinion.”

 

Supernaw took aim at JetBlue’s track record , stating that the airline over the past year has violated the city’s noise ordinance more than once per day, with a total of about 375 violations, adding up to $610,000 in fines. He added that different weather factors with regard to international destinations also need to be considered since they may run the risk of delaying flights and ultimately causing more violations. 

“We run the risk of late night violations all the time,” Supernaw said. “Some of these conventional wisdom remarks just don’t hold water . . . A feasibility study means it’s feasible, but doesn’t mean we necessarily need it or want it.”

 

Still, Romo stated that in some cases the proposal to develop an FIS facility and allow international flights would have no environmental impacts, mainly since the airport would be dealing with the same scenarios that already exist under the noise ordinance, as the city is prohibited from dictating flight destinations. 

 

Regarding concerns that allowing international service would take away domestic flights, Romo said many international passengers on private aircraft are already utilizing the airport after being cleared at nearby airports such as LAX. Romo said adding international flights in Long Beach would create a more “efficient” air space, would reduce emissions from airplanes and would economically benefit the airport with more fuel revenue.  

 

It is estimated that Long Beach Airport, which currently only allows 50 flights per day, may see up to six flights for international service in the first year of operation, accounting for about 12 percent of total flight activity, Romo said. By year four and five, the percentage of international flights at the airport would increase to about eight flights or 16 percent of total flights.

 

On a national average, international service takes up about 20 percent of air traffic while domestic travel takes up about 80 percent, he noted. 

 

Romo reassured the public and city council that allowing international flights at Long Beach Airport, which would require approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as well as state environmental regulatory agencies, would not make the airport comparable to LAX, which he said would continue to have the lion’s share of flight activity in the region for international service. 

 

“There have been some stated concerns from some members of the public at our meetings that, if we were to allow international activity here, than it would become a 100 percent international airport,” he said. “That really is not the case. LAX has the largest percentage of international activity and will continue to have that level of activity.”

 

sean@beachcomber.news

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