LONG BEACH - What began 10 years ago as a modest venture into the rough-and-tumble world of air travel has morphed into one of the city's top success stories of the past decade.
JetBlue Airways marked 10 years of international travel Friday with a celebration at Long Beach Airport, its West Coast base, where the carrier served some 2.3 million passengers in the past year.
Since its first flight out of Long Beach in August of 2001, about a year after the New York-based carrier's launch, JetBlue has carried more than 14 million people into and out of the city to and from destinations across North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
"JetBlue has been a great partner with the community...employing about 700 people locally and becoming an important asset for this city," said Mayor Bob Foster, who joined city leaders, JetBlue and airport executives and airline workers for the milestone birthday. "JetBlue has woven into the community."
JetBlue's presence has coincided with tremendous growth at the airport, which for decades languished behind other regional airports like Los Angeles and John Wayne internationals, despite its regional proximity and available space.
Since 2001, when JetBlue arrived, passenger flights have jumped 390 percent in Long Beach, from 591,000 passengers to 2.9 million in 2009.
And much of that increase is directly attributable to the low-cost carrier, whose passengers have consistently constituted about 75 percent of total traffic at the airport.
Other carriers include Alaska, Horizon, Delta and U.S. Airways.
"Long Beach Airport would not be what it is today without JetBlue," said Mario Rodriguez, Long Beach Airport Director. "The airline has brought a lot of people to Long Beach that might not otherwise have visited."
Rodriguez also believes the carrier's presence has had a moderating influence regionally on passenger flight costs in recent years.
With 29 daily flights to 13 destinations, including New York City, Washington D.C., Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco, JetBlue and Long Beach have become major competitors to some of the region's larger and more established carriers and airports.
"They've pretty well set the bar for low-cost carriers and passenger service," Rodriguez said.
In fact, JetBlue was founded in the late 1990s by former employees of Southwest Airlines, which like JetBlue offers low-cost, no-frills flights to major urban centers across the country.
With an initial fleet of just 10 jets, JetBlue now operates 151 aircraft, profoundly impacting the 74-year-old Long Beach Airport's buildings, parking lots, rampways, runways and hangars.
In late 2009, officials broke ground on a $49-million, five-level, 1,989-slot parking garage just steps from the main terminal.
They're also pushing tens of millions into terminal improvements, airport security and other infrastructure to handle growing passenger loads.
"Long Beach was a great choice for us because of its location, low cost and room for growth...and passengers tend to enjoy it because its less crowded and easy to access," said Robert Land, a JetBlue spokesman. "It's been a solid relationship."
(Kristopher Hanson - Press Telegram)