Company spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said the carrier is not formally considering leaving the airport but that "everything is on the table," as it evaluates its Southern California strategy.
"It's fair to say that we love Long Beach," she said of JetBlue's West Coast hub, "and we love Long Beach as much as our customers do, and as much as our employees, and we want it to work, and if it doesn't, we'll have to make a decision."
Dervin said the carrier has grown weary of the pace of improvements at the city-owned airport. The company wants a new terminal - though the city is considering scaling back the 89,000-square-foot expansion proposal - to replace temporary trailers and a new parking structure.
"Our expectations were that Long Beach would absolutely be a JetBlue anchor for our West Coast operations, and all of the things that are associated with that - first-class terminal, parking for our customers and the ability to grow responsibly and have a great community partner," Dervin said of when JetBlue began service at the airport in 2000. "What we have today is barely better than what we started with."
At the same time, she said, the company is "highly committed to staying in Long Beach and making it what was promised to us when we arrived there." Several city officials said they had not been told that JetBlue is weighing its regional strategy and that the approval and funding processes for the parking lot and terminal are indeed moving forward, albeit slowly.
Smaller terminal project? However, those projects may not be completed quite as envisioned, the Press-Telegram learned Wednesday.
The economic recession has forced city officials to consider scaling back their plan to expand the terminal from the current 56,320 square feet to even smaller than the currently proposed 89,995 square feet, said airport spokeswoman Sharon Diggs-Jackson.
The terminal expansion has been whittled down since it was first proposed seven years ago, from 133,000 square feet to 103,000 square feet, then to 97,545 square feet before the City Council finally settled on 89,995 square feet. Diggs-Jackson said airport officials have begun discussing scaling down the expansion with the airlines, but she had no further details.
"The possibility exists that the project will be smaller, there could be some redesign to the project," Diggs-Jackson said.
The proposed new parking garage project also may change, being built in two phases instead of one, she said. Workers should break ground on the garage by the end of the year, Diggs-Jackson said. Last year, airport officials reported that they would have to raise passenger fees and parking rates at the airport to finance bonds to pay for the improvements.
Between $50 million and $65 million in bonds would be needed to expand the terminal to 89,995 square feet, while another $65 million in bonds would be needed to build a new parking garage, officials said.
Diggs-Jackson said reducing the scope of the terminal improvements could actually speed work on the project. She said any new proposal would stay within the guidelines of the required environmental impact report already certified by the council in 2006.
Any deviation from the EIR guidelines could mean more delays if a new environmental study were required.
After the council certified the EIR, the Long Beach Unified School District and the Parent-Teacher Association challenged the EIR findings in court. They alleged that an airport expansion would lead to more flights, increasing noise and air pollution at nearby schools.
A judge ruled in favor of the city in 2008, but the court battle had already stalled the terminal expansion.
Disbelief and urgency
Bob Luskin, chairman of the Long Beach Airport Advisory Commission, said he couldn't believe that JetBlue would leave Long Beach, noting that the airline has always been able to fill seats.
"Why would they kill the goose that lays the golden egg?" he said.
Diggs-Jackson said JetBlue flights have been more than 80 percent full on average through the years. In 2008, when JetBlue added some new flights, the average was 77 percent, she said.
JetBlue flies from Long Beach to several major cities, including Washington, D.C.; New York City; San Francisco and Chicago.
Becki Ames, chief of staff to Mayor Bob Foster, said she understands that there have been frustrations with the pace of making improvements at the airport - just like at any airport - but that the permitting and funding processes are "moving forward." Ames said Long Beach is more cost-effective for carriers than larger airports and that the Mayor's Office believes that JetBlue is committed to staying here.
Josh Butler, chief of staff for Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske, whose 5th District includes the airport, said his boss was unaware of the rumors about JetBlue but would also like to see the pace of progress at the airport pick up and for the carrier to stay in town.
Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, who was elected to the 8th District as an opponent of increasing the number of flights at the airport, said she also doesn't want to see JetBlue leave, but that the city must be realistic about its finances.
Blog raises questions
JetBlue's fate at the airport came up this week after Dave Barger, the chief executive officer of JetBlue, told an aviation industry blog, www.crankyflier.com, that he had problems with the airport. In interview with blogger Brett Snyder, Barger said:
"Municipalities must make good on their commitments. That includes parking, terminals, baggage claim and every other part of the experience. "The message I would give is that especially in a recession, you shouldn't take air service for granted."
Barger called the airport "a huge frustration for us" and that expanding at Los Angeles International Airport, where it plans to begin offering service, is one possibility.
"Well, LAX is part of our L.A. basin strategy, but it becomes a necessary part because of the lack of partnership with the city of Long Beach," he told Snyder. "People might have to go to LAX to use us, because we're actually wanted there."
In an interview with the Press-Telegram, Snyder said that he asked Barger questions at a Phoenix aviation symposium Friday. He published his interview with Barger in two parts on Monday and Tuesday. Dervin confirmed as accurate Barger's quotes in the Crankyflier blog.
JetBlue has about 29 of 41 available daily departures from the airport. The airline would also like some of the 25 unused commuter-plane slots, an issue also addressed in the blog posting.
Snyder asked, "So what exactly is the problem? Is it that you can't use your E-190s (a type of jet) in the commuter slots?"
At 115,000 pounds, JetBlue's new Embraer E-190 aircraft exceed the 75,000-pound weight limit set by the city's noise ordinance.
Barger said: "We would like to be able to use our E-190s in those commuter slots. That's the perfect use of those slots, because these aircraft are very quiet.
"But the best example is that it took us 30 months to build a brand new terminal at JFK, but we're still stuck in temporary trailers in Long Beach.
"I don't think communities always realize what an economic tool an airport is. You can't take commercial air service for granted." JetBlue's review of the Southern California market is not specific to Long Beach and not a comment on the city, airport or the community, Dervin said.
"It's all part of a larger L.A. basin story," she said. "Whatever makes the most sense for JetBlue is what we'll do." But she also said the company is interested in growing and if it cannot at a given location in its network, "We're not shy about making decisions."
(Long Beach Press Telegram)