Council Approves New Rules for Airport Flight Slots

By: 
Sean Belk

Despite objections by JetBlue Airways, the Long Beach City Council, at its meeting on Nov. 20, unanimously approved changes to city code that impose a new set of rules for how airlines are allocated and able to utilize flight slots at Long Beach Airport.

The airport’s flight slot allocation procedure or resolution, which requires a minimum utilization of allocated flight slots by air carriers and enforces penalties for violations, dates back to the creation of the airport’s court-ordered noise ordinance first enacted in 1995, according to airport staff.

However, staff said policy changes, including increasing the minimum required utilization of flight slots, are needed since certain air carriers have been able to “slot squat,” a practice in which an air carrier holds on to underutilized flights, keeping other air carriers out of a portion of the market.

Enabling such a practice prevents other air carriers, whether existing or new entrants, from utilizing unused flights on a “regular and long-term basis” rather than on a “supplemental and limited basis,” airport staff said.

JetBlue Airways, which has been the airport’s main air carrier since 2001, has been the primary opponent to the policy changes, stating in a letter to the airport that the proposed amendments were “specifically designed to harm JetBlue,” according to airport staff.

The New York-based airline, which has long sought international flights out of Long Beach Airport to no avail, also stated, according to airport staff, that the policy changes are not necessary since JetBlue is in “full compliance” with the current flight slot allocation resolution.   

The new flight slot allocation policy requires air carriers to utilize 60 percent of their flight slots during any calendar month, 70 percent during any calendar quarter and 85 percent during any calendar year in order to maintain a slot, similar to requirements imposed at John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

The airport’s previous flight allocation policy, which was last amended in 2004, requires air carriers to utilize only 57 percent of their flight slots or at least four flights per week over any 180-day period and to utilize about 50 percent of the allocated slot (at least 30 flights) in any 60-day period.

Failure to adhere to the new rules would result in administrative penalties, including reducing allocated flight slots to be more consistent with actual utilization and potential disqualification from receiving additional permanent or supplemental flight slots for a period of time, according to city staff.

Airport staff said the policy changes, which include other minor administrative amendments, will make the airport run more efficiently and allow operations to be administered on more “fair and reasonable terms” and without “unjust discrimination” among airport users as required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  

Without singling out JetBlue, airport staff said the airport’s current flight slot utilization level “arguably provides for the potential [for air carriers] to engage in anti-competitive behavior by maintaining flight slots that are underutilized,” restricting opportunities for new entrants or other incumbent air carriers.

“If we don’t change the allocation resolution there would be no incentive for carriers to change behavior,” said Long Beach Airport Director Jess Romo in a presentation to the City Council. “The main rationale behind proposing amendments are that it ensures the air carriers that are there are adequately utilizing their flight slots.”

In response to JetBlue’s assertions, airport staff said the proposed amendments are “not targeted at JetBlue” and rather are a result of the “continued underutilization of flight slots at the airport.” Further, airport staff said the new minimum utilization requirements will apply “equally to all incumbent and potential, new entrant air carriers at the airport, not just to JetBlue.”

In contrast to JetBlue, however, Southwest Airlines, which started service at the airport in 2016 as the newest air carrier competing for service, sent a letter to the airport indicating support of the new flight slot allocation policy and that the proposed amendments don’t go far enough, according to airport staff.

“From Southwest Airlines’ perspective, good policy dictates that, to the extent [flight slots] are allocated to and, as a result, controlled by individual air carriers, there must be an effective mechanism to assure maximum usage of such capacity,” Southwest Airlines said in a statement, according to staff.

Changes to the airport’s flight slot allocation policy were developed after two years of outreach with the FAA, air carriers and the community.

The proposed amendments also come after the airport resolved an ongoing dispute with JetBlue in 2018 relating to curfew operations and interpretation of the existing curfew provisions in the airport’s noise ordinance, according to airport staff.

Romo said during the council meeting, however, that the proposed changes to the flight slot allocation policy does not include any amendments to the airport’s noise ordinance and will enable airlines to maximize capacity that currently exists at the airport.

He added that the changes will clarify that flight slots are not “property rights” or “property interest” of air carriers but in fact belong to the city to be allocated based on a reasonable use by air carriers.

sean@beachcomber.news

[Editor’s Note: The city announced yesterday that Romo would be retiring at the end of January. See story in the Bits ‘n’ Pieces section on page 9.]

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