Southwest Airlines hopes to get a significant boost for its operations at Long Beach Airport as rival JetBlue Airways loosens its grip on its lengthy dominance there.
The possibilities for Southwest cropped up last month when JetBlue announced plans to cut 11 daily flights at Long Beach Airport, effective Sept. 5. The move came as part of a broader restructuring of Long Island City, N.Y.-based JetBlue’s flights in Southern California, which included the addition of two daily flights at Hollywood Burbank Airport and a return to service at Ontario International Airport with one flight.
Long Beach Airport has 50 commercial flights a day, spread over four airlines. It handled 3.8 million passengers in 2017, a 33 percent increase from the year prior, when a study by Jacobs Engineering Group pegged the total economic impact of the facility and its tenants at $10 billion, with 45,000 direct and indirect jobs.
JetBlue started operations at Long Beach Airport in 2001, and has been the busiest operator there for years. It currently operates 33 daily flights, about two-thirds of the facility’s total. The airline also uses bigger planes, on average, than other carriers at Long Beach, a factor that pushes its share of passenger traffic to about 80 percent.
Southwest Airlines – the leading carrier in terms of daily flights and passengers at Hollywood Burbank, Ontario International in the Inland Empire, and John Wayne Airport in Orange County – currently has six daily flights from Long Beach.
These four airports combined for about 25.5 million passengers last year, well below the 84.5 million Los Angeles International Airport handled, but nevertheless a significant supplement to the region’s capacity for commercial air travel.
Southwest Airlines and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, which also has current operations at Long Beach, are on a waiting list for additional slots to open there, according to airport Director Jess Romo.
Honolulu-based Hawaiian Airlines Inc. also is on the list; it picked up a JetBlue flight slot earlier this year and plans to start service at Long Beach on June 1.
Romo said that a Federal Aviation Administration policy designed to promote competition among carriers requires any available slots at the airport first be offered to any airlines not currently serving the airport. Any newcomers would be allowed to take up to two slots apiece.
Then, airlines already serving the airport – or “incumbent” airlines – get their chance at any remaining slots.
He said that Hawaiian Airlines is now considered an incumbent airline.
So far, though, there have been limited indications of interest in the soon-to-open slots at Long Beach Airport from airlines that don’t already serve the facility. Incumbent carrier Southwest, which first entered Long Beach only two years ago seems to be most keen on snapping up JetBlue’s flights.
“As local Long Beach customers know, we’ve always looked for ways to benefit them by adding low fare service when slots become available,” Adam Decaire, managing director of network planning for Southwest, said in an email. “Southwest absolutely would analyze any opportunity to respond to obvious demand for our service in the L.A. Basin.”
Responses from four air carriers that would be newcomers ran the gamut from a generic statement of consideration of any flight slot openings at any airport, to no interest at all in Long Beach.
Janet Lamkin, president of the California region for Chicago-based United Airlines, said the airline considers any opportunities to add flights at airports when they come up. But she did not say whether the airline was looking specifically at the Long Beach slots.
Spokespeople for two other airlines – Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and Denver-based Frontier Airlines – had no comment.
Only one air carrier besides Southwest contacted for this story – Las Vegas-based Allegiant Airlines – gave a definitive response on the Long Beach slots.
“At this time, we are not considering the available slots at Long Beach Airport,” spokeswoman Krysta Levy said in an email.
The generally tepid responses from outside airlines are not surprising, according to Michael Boyd, president of Denver-based Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting firm.
“Long Beach Airport slots simply don’t have the same demand as from other airports,” Boyd said. “The airlines left from consolidation apparently have most of what they feel they need.”
One possible reason: this isn’t the first time in recent years that a sizable number of slots have become available at Long Beach Airport, which is governed by a noise abatement settlement reached between the city, neighboring residents and the FAA. The agreement gives the facility the right to add to its overall number of flights only if the cumulative decibel count of noise from its current lineup is below the allowable limit. That happened in 2015 when the Long Beach City Council voted to add nine daily flights to an existing schedule of 41, bringing the airport to its current total of 50.
Southwest, which had not previously flown out of Long Beach, grabbed six of those slots.
JetBlue added three slots as part of its plan to turn Long Beach Airport into one of its regional hubs. But that plan was contingent on JetBlue being able to serve Mexico and other Latin American markets, and that in turn required the city approve funding for a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.
The Long Beach City Council rejected the funding plan for the customs facility in January 2017 after some residents objected to opening up the airport to international flights. JetBlue within days said it would re-evaluate its plans for Long Beach, a process which it completed last month with the flight cut announcement. The cuts are only to the frequency of flights to seven destinations; no destinations the airline serves from Long Beach are being entirely cut.
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