Sunday, March 8, 2009

Parking is Long Beach Airport priority

For the Long Beach Airport, providing parking for thousands of its daily customers will be one of the most critical issues it will face in 2009.

Right now, roughly 45 percent of the airport's 4,935 parking spaces are in a remote lot on Boeing property, which airport officials lease month to month.

But recent plans by Long Beach Studios LLC to purchase the former Boeing 717 manufacturing site and the parking lot the airport has been leasing have prompted airport officials to expedite a multimillion dollar parking garage expansion that had been experiencing delays.

"Without that parking, our business model does not work," said Chris Kunze, who served as the airport's interim director.

Airport officials are keeping their fingers crossed on an $85 million to $88 million stimulus package submission that could fund several projects, including a new 3,200-space parking garage that would be outfitted with solar panels and retrofitting the existing garage, which would also have solar panels.

The airport's parking garage expansion is about 60 percent designed, Kunze said.

If stimulus money is not available, airport officials will look into the bond market sometime approaching summer and, it is hoped, break ground in mid-to-late summer, Kunze said.

"It's critical for us to have that parking capacity," he said. "That is probably our No. 1 priority - either through the stimulus grants or using airport revenue bonds - is to go ahead and construct that as soon as possible."

As for business, Long Beach Airport posted steady numbers in 2007-2008 with 3 million passengers annually, while drops in passenger traffic were seen at rival airports such as Los Angeles International and Ontario International airports.

For January 2009, the number of airline seats and passengers at Long Beach Airport were up over last year. Also, all 41 commercial flight slots have been allocated and JetBlue - which carries about 80 percent of passengers - appears to be doing well, Kunze said.

"We are fortunate in Long Beach," he said. "We do have a very strong marketplace with over 6 million living within our primary market service area and because of that, our passenger counts have not come down. A lot of airports have."

And while one of its cargo carriers, Airborne Express, relinquished its slot last month, Kunze is confident that the slot will soon be filled. Three passenger airlines have expressed interest, a good position for the airport because it generates more revenue and makes passenger counts rise, Kunze said.

He expects to make an announcement about reallocating the slot this month.

"We're doing quite well, considering what the industry is going through," he said.

"The challenge is to keep costs low. Unlike other airports, we can't grow our airline business because of noise ordinance requirements."

It's one of several issues new airport director Mario Rodriguez will encounter.

Rodriguez, who served as deputy director at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, took over management of Long Beach Airport Feb. 23.

Aside from managing a 125-person staff and a $28 million budget, Rodriguez also will be working with the community on a neighborhood sound attenuation program, which the airport began developing in 2008.

Airport officials expect to be ready to go with Phase I of acoustically treating 10 homes on a pilot program basis soon, Kunze said.

The City Council also authorized the airport to move forward with design of terminal improvements to replace the modular rented facilities with permanent facilities, another upcoming challenge.

"We're so constrained on the site here, there's not a lot of room where you can go ahead and build improvements in an area that doesn't impact anybody and then just have a ribbon cutting," Kunze said. "You've got to figure out how to build something over a two- to three-year process without significantly interrupting our ongoing operations, which will be a challenge."

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