JetBlue to 'Evaluate' Future Plans After City Council Nixes International Flights

By: 
Sean Belk
SNOW-COVERED MT. BALDY as seen from Signal Hill with an airliner on final approach to LAX.

JetBlue Airways is reassessing its future plans in the local region after the Long Beach City Council, in an 8-1 vote at its Jan. 24 meeting, nixed moving forward with the airline’s proposal to build a federal inspection services (FIS) facility that would have permitted international flights at Long Beach Airport.   
 
The highly-contentious meeting drew hundreds of people, including residents who oppose the FIS proposal, holding up signs that read “Leave It Alone” and “No International Airport Expansion,” in addition to those in support, including JetBlue employees, who held up signs that read “Yes On FIS.”
 
The decision comes after more than a year of debate and analysis following a request by JetBlue – the airport’s main air carrier – to consider building an FIS facility to open up international flight service. The airline has expressed a need to tap into a growing international travel market with possible flights to Mexico and South America.
 
JetBlue executives have since stated they were “surprised” by the city council’s decision, noting that the city’s commissioned study confirmed that an FIS facility would pose no new security risks or threats to the city’s noise ordinance and would be an economic boon for the area.
 
“We are extremely disappointed that the city council would reject the development of a federal inspection station after years of delays and a city-mandated study validating the safety, security and positive economic nature of the project,” said Robert Land, senior vice president of government affairs for JetBlue Airways, in an email sent to the Beachcomber and other media. “We will evaluate our future plans for Long Beach, as well as the greater Los Angeles area and California.”
 
Airport Director Jess Romo presented findings of a study commissioned by Jacobs Engineering that was released last October. The study indicated that an FIS facility, which would add U.S. Customs and Border Protection screening, would be financially feasible and would not add security risks or threaten the city’s noise ordinance, which limits the number of daily flights at the airport, among other stipulations.
 
In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reaffirmed a prior statement that an FIS facility would not threaten the city’s noise ordinance.
 
Still, residents living under the airport’s flight path and city council members have continued to raise concerns about how international flights and an FIS facility would impact the airport and the city as a whole.
 
During a meeting last December, Mayor Robert Garcia criticized the study’s findings, stating that international flights would ultimately come at the expense of domestic flights, which he said are more in demand and are more financially beneficial for the city.
 
While a majority of city council members had publicly stated their opposition, 5th District City Councilmember Stacy Mungo, who has wavered on the issue and whose district encompasses neighborhoods near the airport, made a motion to receive and file the report, effectively voting against moving forward with an FIS facility.
 
The motion was seconded by 3rd District City Councilmember Suzie Price. The sole vote in favor of moving forward with an FIS facility was cast by 6th District City Councilmember Dee Andrews, who stated the economic benefits and potential jobs may help curb crime in the city.
 
Mungo said she came to her decision after fully reviewing the issues, assets, liabilities and potential revenues that would come from an FIS facility and international flights.
 
“The financial investment the city would make in this endeavor does not outweigh the potential benefits at this time,” she said. “The potential economic impacts to the region and more importantly to the City of Long Beach and the airport itself just don’t justify in my mind setting aside all our other priorities or reorganizing. I just feel that the potential economic impacts don’t justify the investment.”
 
Romo said airport staff has estimated the airport could accommodate an FIS facility of about 15,000 square feet, a nearly 30 percent reduction of what consultants had estimated. A decision to “right-size” the facility’s concept was made after factoring U.S. Customs operations relative to the city’s noise ordinance,  he said.
 
With the reduction in size, construction of an FIS facility would cost about $10 million, Romo said, adding that the airport would be able to use up to $3 million in passenger facility charges (PFCs) while JetBlue would cover the rest. He said the airport currently has $110 million in outstanding debt due to major airport improvements and PFC funding could be spent on other projects, such as further runway improvements and upgrades to the baggage area.
 
Responding to Mungo’s questioning, Romo confirmed that adding international flights would not generate any new revenue for the airport and would only cover a portion of construction and ongoing expenses of the FIS facility after years of being in operation.
 
He said the study analyzed potential demand for international flights and estimated that international travel would take up about 12 to 16 percent of overall commercial flights or six to eight of the 50 daily flights allowed at the airport under the noise ordinance.
 
During public comment, FIS facility proponents, including aviation industry representatives and members of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said adding international flights would create new jobs and economic activity.
 
Price said her decision to vote against the FIS facility proposal is not a reflection on Jetblue but was made after taking into account concerns brought by residents.
 
“I fly JetBlue,” she said. “My family flies JetBlue. I love the contribution that they make in this city. This is a decision about the residents of the City of Long Beach. This is not a decision about a particular company.”
 
sean@beachcomber.news

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