After decades of planning, Long Beach Airport is undergoing its most dramatic facelift in its 87 years – and it’s attracting low-cost carriers that are adding flights.

While passenger counts are down at other airports in the region – including Los Angeles International, Ontario and Burbank – Long Beach just about maintained its passenger count at about 3 million in 2009. This year it’s expected to be even busier.

As recently as last month, air carriers were making just 35 daily flights in and out of the airport, six less than allowed under a strict city noise ordinance. But this month, Denver-based Frontier Airlines and Las Vegas-based low-fare carrier Allegiant Air each signed on to offer two daily flights, while current tenants JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines are each adding one.

Now, in order to appease airlines and their customers frustrated with parking jams, outdated concessions and temporary holding structures, the airport is racing to get improvements done. The primary projects are a $45 million renovation and expansion of the main terminal, and a new $56 million parking garage.

“This is the biggest project of its size ever for the airport,” said Mario Rodriguez, director of the city-owned airport. “We’re focused on doing the right-sized project that is financially feasible, and enhances customer service to our best ability for both the airlines and their passengers.”

The five-story parking structure is already under construction and will add almost 2,000 parking spots by fall 2011. It’s funded through a 30-year bond with $4.2 million in annual payments from parking fees, which are forecast to bring in $4.9 million annually. That means the project is expected to generate extra money that the airport can use for a variety of purposes.

The 89,000-square-foot terminal project, which is set to start in December, will replace temporary shelters with permanent structures, including new restrooms, and retail and food concessions. The cost of the three-year project will be covered by existing passenger facility surcharges on tickets, with no increases anticipated for airlines or passengers.

The no-fee improvements and relative low cost of doing business in Long Beach got the attention of some airlines. A total of four airlines now fly in and out of the airport, expanding to six this summer.

“The airport is unique in Los Angeles’ area as it is relatively hassle free from a customer standpoint, relatively well located exactly halfway between Orange County Airport and LAX, and because of the slot controls, competition is limited,” said Allegiant Vice President of Planning Robert Ashcroft. “Also, because the airport is not likely to get much bigger than it is, it’s likely to remain a very cost-effective airport.”

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