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Cheap Parking, Short Lines and the Sonic Boom at Long Beach Airport

Cheap Parking, Short Lines and the Sonic Boom at Long Beach Airport





By SAMANTHA LEE

Staff Reporter

With no more than a dozen passengers in the lone terminal at Long Beach Airport, skycaps, ticket agents and administrative employees paused for a moment as a B-1 bomber took off from a nearby airfield.

It was probably the biggest rush of the day.

There are 24 daily flights in and out of Long Beach Airport, all flowing through a two-story, blue and white Art Deco terminal built in the 1940s. The ornate lettering above the ticket counters and restrooms brings to mind an old-fashioned theater.

“It’s a lot less hectic than LAX,” said Danny Ochoa, who drove from San Diego to catch a JetBlue flight to New York. “But there’s no recognizable fast-food restaurants.”

His wife, November, laments the lack of distraction. “There’s not a lot to do if you have to wait for a flight,” she says. “I wish it had more shops or a bookstore.”

There is, in fact, a gift shop with the usual newspapers, magazines and souvenirs at the far right end of the terminal and it extended its hours to 10 p.m. “We now have books,” proclaims Sharon Diggs-Jackson, an airport spokeswoman.

Lots of excitement

All of a sudden, Long Beach is a legitimate travel alternative the same Long Beach that limited commercial traffic by tacking on all kinds of noise restrictions in response to angry neighbors.

Things changed last summer when low-cost carrier Jet Blue, looking for a cheaper alternative to the LAX juggernaut, began service to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Since then, JetBlue has boosted its service to several other cities, creating an unlikely tussle between American Airlines, which already has a small presence at the airport, and the city over landing slots being awarded to JetBlue last year.

For now, JetBlue holds most of the cards. It controls 27 slots, and though it only uses six it plans to increase that to 23 by Oct 10. The company then has until Jan. 7, 2003 to use all 27, at which point the airport can take back any unused slots. American already has four slots and has requested four more.

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines is also interested.

All told, it’s a lot of excitement for the 62-year-old facility that’s a vestige to the early days of flying when passengers walked onto the tarmac to board a plane. “I wasn’t sure what I was expecting,” said Nooley Reinheardt as he arrived to pick up his wife, who had flown in from Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., “but I didn’t think it would be so small.”

One woman arriving from Dallas pointed out that she had business in the LAX area, but finds it less expensive to fly to Long Beach and drive to her destination. “It was $900 cheaper and the company is happy I will bill them less,” she said.

Compared with the crowds and delays at Los Angeles International Airport and even Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Long Beach does take some getting used to.

First off is getting there. Twenty-two miles south of LAX, it’s at least a 30-minute drive from Westwood on the San Diego (405) Freeway, assuming traffic cooperates close to an hour if it doesn’t. (A Westwood to LAX trip takes anywhere from 15-45 minutes.)

Passengers can make up much of that time by the user-friendliness of the place, which, unlike LAX is right next to the freeway. Parking, for $6 a day, is 50 feet from the terminal.

Also a breeze is renting a car. Directly across from the terminal, the five rental agencies have facilities right next to their fleets, eliminating the need for an off-site shuttle.

“It’s the only airport I know where you can get off the plane and into a rental car in less than five minutes,” says Frank Croker, a machine tool operator, as he waited for a flight to Dallas for business.

Not much to do

With only eight gates for the three passenger airlines, the boarding area is separated into two lounges. America West and American share the north lounge, with three gates, while Jet Blue has five gates in the south lounge.

Passengers must pass through the required security checkpoints, of course, but on a recent morning it was clear sailing negating the need to arrive 90 minutes or longer before a flight; typically 40 minutes or so is usually fine.

That’s just as well, because, well, there’s not much to do.

No big-screen TVs, gift shops, sit-down restaurants or ATMs in the boarding area. A small snack kiosk offers coffee and candy, but the best draw may be a close up view of the planes themselves. Using air stairs instead of covered jetways, passengers exit the lounge and walk 25 feet to board the aircraft. The baggage claim areas, adjacent to the lounge, are outdoors. Southern California weather has meant few bags have been rained on.

“It’s doesn’t bother me in fact I think it’s quaint,” said Kristine Cleary, a Mission Viejo-based clothing representative on her way to Dallas.

But not for long. Though only 24 of the 41 allotted slots are now used 33 by Oct. 10 more flights into and out of Long Beach are likely to strain the deco-style terminal. That means full capacity for the first time in a decade, when Alaska, American, Delta, United and America West all had a presence.

And full capacity means the need to expand.

The uptick in flights has pushed the airport, owned by the city, to begin building its first off-site parking lot; come Aug. 1 will be the first shuttle service between airport and parking.

In addition, an airport-financed terminal expansion will include more space for baggage claim, security and concessions. Completion is slated for the end of 2003. A new airport hotel is set to break ground in 2004.

“Before, our primary crowd was leisure and business people on their way to Dallas or Phoenix,” explained Diggs-Jackson. “It was much quieter, more sedate. Now, with the flights to New York, the crowd is younger, more energetic. With such low fares, you see people flying to New York just to party for the weekend.”

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