Sunday, July 27, 2008

Parking plans for Long Beach Airport delayed

By Joe Stevens, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 07/26/2008 09:34:16 PM PDT

LONG BEACH - As the airline industry flies through turmoil, the Long Beach Airport is being affected, but instead of losing a major percentage of revenue like other airports, the main effect is the delay in plans to build a parking structure and renovate the terminal.

"Calling our plans `a process' is appropriate," Assistant Airport Manager Christine Edwards said. "Six months ago, I could give you a timeline on what we'd like to do. But the industry has changed so much during that time, that our situation has changed, too. We're going to have to be more deliberate and careful, understanding what the airlines are going through."

Earlier this month, Edwards addressed City Council and explained that building a new parking garage may require up to $65 million in bonds. But the exact cost is unknown because the garage is in the preliminary design phase.

Edwards also presented a plan to renovate and expand the L.B. Airport's terminal from 56,000 square feet to 90,000. To do that, it was estimated, would take between $50 million and $65 million in bonds.

The plan with the terminal is not as pressing as the parking garage because half of the airport's parking spots, about 2,300 spaces, are on Boeing property. Boeing is considering renovating those spots, but a plan to do that is not imminent.

Edwards is hoping to keep both the parking structure and terminal expansion plans moving forward, despite the expected delay.

"The next step with City Council would be a proposal to issue bonds," she said. "But that's at least six months away, and maybe 12 months away."

Beyond the parking structure and terminal changes, the Long Beach Airport is running relatively well because all 41 of its commercial flight slots have been filled and running since May. This is the first time all of those slots have been filled since the early 1990s.

It also is arguably the most efficiently the commercial slots have been running, because the aircraft in those slots average 140 passengers, which is more than the aircraft in the '90s.

Furthermore, JetBlue Airlines has 28 of the slots and has asked the airport for control of the other slots, if they become available. Last week, JetBlue announced it would cut flights from Ontario and Los Angeles International Airports. When it did that, a JetBlue representative reinforced to Edwards the importance of the L.B. Airport to the company and that it wouldn't be cutting flights.

One of the problems the airport is facing, though, is with its commuter slots. ExpressJet Airlines will be ending its branded flights as of Sept. 2 and will stop use of its six commuter slots that offer the only Long Beach flights to Reno/Tahoe, Fresno and Monterey. In essence, ExpressJet controls 8.8 percent of the flights out of Long Beach.

US Airways also recently told the L.B. Airport that it will relinquish its lone commuter slot in the fall. So there will only be five of 25 commuter slots filled in the fall, and all of those are controlled by Delta Air Lines.

"Because of the high cost of fuel, there's been a real shake-out with smaller aircraft," said Chris Kunze, the airport's interim director. "When there are planes that seat 50, it's hard to recover costs with how high fuel is. Still, I'm confident that we'll fill the commuter slots. The only question is whether it will be in two years, five years or 10 years."

Kunze is also the airport's former director. He retired from that post and moved into a part-time consulting role in January 2007. At that time, Christine Andersen took over the director's position, but she left last month to become the director of public works for the city of Santa Barbara.

Kunze says Edwards is a strong candidate to replace Andersen, and the city will conduct a national search for the position. The hope is that it is filled by November.

No matter who takes that airport job, though, that person is poised to lead a facility that continues to be busy.

"We're very confident that if any of our airlines in the commercial slots pulls out, that another airline would step in," Edwards said. "In the current market, maybe there is a concern that there could be a some time before that happens, but it will happen. The underlying market here is just so strong that airlines want to be here."

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