Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Council responds to JetBlue

AIRPORT: Mayor seeks `professional conduct' by carrier in expansion talks.
By Paul Eakins, Staff Writer

LONG BEACH - Mayor Bob Foster and some City Council members had strong words for JetBlue executives Tuesday as they discussed last week's news that the airline is unhappy with the lack of progress on planned improvements at Long Beach Airport.

Those news reports stemmed from comments made by JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Dave Barger in a blog that JetBlue might consider leaving Long Beach.

"Everyone wants to see a quality airport," Foster said. "I know the frustration. It probably has taken too long."

Then, speaking directly to several JetBlue representatives who were in the audience at City Hall, Foster continued: "The one thing I would ask for everybody involved in this is professional conduct. You're asking it from this council, I'm asking it from you.

"I would ask JetBlue, everyone from the CEO on down, let's conduct ourselves as real partners, as real professionals. If you have a problem, if you have an issue, bring it to my office or bring it to a council member's office, don't do it in the press."

The discussion began with a motion by Vice Mayor Val Lerch to have City Manager Pat West give a report to the council on the airport expansion's progress and timeline. Lerch too had strong words, though they were in support of JetBlue's position.

"We're a city that made a commitment. We're a city that made a promise and shook hands and wrote a contract with a business that wanted to operate in this city," Lerch said.

"After nine years, it is time that we start building the enhancement to the terminal ... it is time that we had adequate parking ... it is time that we send a message to other business enterprises that we are a city that keeps our promises."

Lerch said he would rather have a park in the middle of Long Beach than an airport, but since the airport is there, it should be the best possible.

"JetBlue is the devil that we know," Lerch said. "I'd much rather have JetBlue, the devil I know, than some other devil in here trying to break our noise bucket (the airport noise ordinance) over and over again."

But Bixby Knolls resident John Deats challenged whether the city had ever made an official agreement with JetBlue to improve the airport, an argument that Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske said she supported.

Lerch argued that by publicly planning the airport improvements and approving an environmental impact report for the project, Long Beach had signaled its intent to do the work.

Deats made another point with which Foster said he agreed - that Barger's comments would make the city's effort to finance bonds for the airport project more difficult.

Between $50 million and $65 million would be needed to expand the terminal from the current 56,320 square feet to 89,995 square feet, while another $65 million in bonds are needed to build a new parking garage, officials have said.

Councilwoman Rae Gabelich said the council hasn't dragged its feet on the project, which was proposed in 2002 and has taken many forms.

"I was concerned and upset really about the insinuation that this council has stymied the process," Gabelich said.

She noted that a lawsuit by Long Beach Unified School District and the Long Beach Parent-Teacher Association over the city's environmental report delayed the project.

A court ruled in the city's favor, but the PTA appealed the decision. The case will be heard April 27, after which West will present his report on the airport timeline, the council voted Tuesday.

The new airport director, Mario Rodriguez, said the city should be careful not to increase passenger fees during tough economic times in order to finance bonds for the improvements.

Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske said the council has been prudent to take its time on the project.

"It would be highly irresponsible of this council to move forward on anything until we have put together ... a way to finance the terminal expansion as well as the parking structure," Schipske said.

However, sharing Lerch's frustration, Councilman Gary DeLong said: "We've been in this nine years and we have yet to break ground on anything, not a terminal, not a garage, not a nothing."

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