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Now, in order to appease airlines and their customers frustrated with parking jams, outdated concessions and temporary holding structures, the airport is racing to get improvements done.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.”

Indeed, Long Beach is one of the cheapest airports to fly out of the L.A. area for airlines.

At LAX, the cost per passenger for airlines is close to $11; at Ontario, it’s about $13; and at Orange County, it’s about $10. Only Burbank is cheaper, at $1.87 per passenger, but passenger traffic there fell by 14 percent in 2009 year, its lowest total in eight years. Southwest Airlines, which has a strong presence there, has struggled as business travel fell.

Improvement needed

The Long Beach Airport, meanwhile, has been busy. It spans 1,100 acres and also houses aerospace companies, including manufacturing facilities for Gulfstream Aerospace and Boeing Co.’s C-17 cargo jet. Some 180 businesses in total are there, including national mail carriers FedEx and UPS, which regularly use the runways.

However, the marine-themed terminal, which opened in 1923, is a relic from another era. It was the first building constructed there, with additional facilities added for security and boarding over the years – all spanning just 56,000 square feet. That’s tiny for a modern airport, and has long prompted airlines to push for a renovation or reconstruction. However, they have run up against residents opposed to more flights.

Then, after 12 years of lawsuits and heated public meetings, the Long Beach City Council adopted the Airport Noise Compatibility Ordinance in 1995 that limits the number of daily flights to 41. That law removed one obstacle to the expansion of the terminal, since it meant that the project would not result in more flights – though it also has restrained growth.

“(The airport) has way more capacity to handle more flights, but the city and the airport can’t do anything about it,” said Jack Keady, an air transportation consultant in Playa del Rey.

JetBlue, though, used the ordinance to its advantage, creating its first West Coast hub at Long Beach in 2001when the traffic at the airport was at a low with barely more than a dozen flights daily. That move raised the airport’s profile as a viable alternative to LAX.

However, the long-planned terminal renovation and expansion became bogged down, prompting Long Beach last year to hire Rodriguez as the airport’s director. The veteran airport executive was most recently a deputy director at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where he was credited for helping it recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Still, after nearly a decade of delays in any improvements, Jet Blue Chief Executive Dave Barger caused a furor in 2009 when he threatened to take the company’s business elsewhere. Rodriguez said last week that the airport has addressed the carrier’s concerns by moving quickly since then, and an airline spokeswoman said the overhaul plans are satisfactory.

“This December, we were pleased to participate in the parking garage groundbreaking and are eager for the terminal enhancement to move forward,” said Alison Croyle, manager of corporate communications for JetBlue. “Improvements will be good for the airlines and will reflect positively

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