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JetBlue says it may cut back Long Beach operations

The airline, citing lack of progress on airport improvements, says it may move flights to LAX.

April 02, 2009|Peter Pae and Dan Weikel

JetBlue Airways, citing frustration with the lack of facility improvements at Long Beach Airport, said Wednesday that it may cease operations at the airport where it began its West Coast expansion and is now the busiest carrier.

No specific plan to leave Long Beach has been proposed, but a JetBlue spokeswoman said the airline could consider, among other options, scaling back flights or shifting them to other airports in the region, including Los Angeles International Airport.

New York-based JetBlue is slated to launch new transcontinental service at LAX in June.

The airline has a loyal following at Long Beach Airport, from which 24 to 29 JetBlue flights depart each day bound for major cities that include New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco and Las Vegas. The airport is one of five major hubs for the airline and is considered its West Coast "anchor."

"It is regrettable, and that's not our choice," said Jenny Dervin, spokeswoman for the carrier. "But we have to face the facts that we are in temporary trailers, and that's not acceptable. It doesn't serve our customers, and it doesn't serve our brand. We want to go where we are wanted."

Dervin confirmed comments made by JetBlue Chief Executive Dave Barger and first reported by the aviation blog Crankyflier.com. In an interview with the blog, Barger said that operating at Long Beach "has been a huge frustration for us" and criticized the pace of improvements to the airport's terminal and parking structure.

"They need to make good on their commitment to improve the airport experience," he said. "People might have to go to LAX to use us, because we're actually wanted there."

Dervin denied that Barger's comments were a negotiating ploy to prod Long Beach officials into addressing some of his grievances. "It is not a threat. It's simply an expression of frustration," she said.

A Long Beach Airport official said she was surprised by the comments and that the airport had not received any indication from the airline that it would leave.

JetBlue has 29 of the 41 commercial slots the airport can grant to airlines under the city's noise ordinance.

Rather than cutting service, airport spokeswoman Sharon Diggs-Jackson said, the discount airline is adding another flight in May. Long Beach remains a profitable market for JetBlue, she said.

Long Beach Airport handles about 3 million passengers a year, a pace that has held up despite the recession. The airport has drawn passengers who say they want to avoid traffic congestion and long security lines that they might encounter at LAX.

JetBlue does not have any long-term commitments to Long Beach because the airport has a month-to-month arrangement with its tenants for terminal and office space. Flights are granted to airlines in perpetuity, but there is no requirement that they provide service for a specific time period, Diggs-Jackson said.

Airport officials said plans to replace the existing temporary gates were being reevaluated by the city and airport tenants because of the economic challenges faced by the airline industry. Plans include construction of new waiting areas and gates as well as more concessions. A new parking structure is on schedule, but the project will likely be scaled back, Diggs-Jackson said.

JetBlue and the airport have also been at odds over the use of commuter airline slots. Last year, JetBlue raised the possibility of using its Embraer 190 for some of the 25 commuter airline slots available at the airport. The twin-engine jet can hold 90 passengers.

But although the Embraer aircraft is quieter than some commuter jets, Diggs-Jackson said the city's noise ordinance prohibits the use of the plane for commuter flights because it is too heavy. She said JetBlue had made no formal request for the commuter slots.

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peter.pae@latimes.com

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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