Thursday, November 4, 2010

Long Beach Airport's `boutique' experience

LONG BEACH — Conservative budgeting and key alliances with several startup airlines in the past decade have lifted Long Beach Airport from its longtime status as a sparsely used regional hub to one of the nation's premier "boutique" airports.

Since 2001, when an untested, quirky New York-based carrier named JetBlue picked Long Beach as its West Coast hub, annual passenger traffic has exploded from less than 550,000 to more than 3 million.

JetBlue's surprising success — the airline grew while its larger competitors imploded in the wake of 9-11 — was critical in the years that followed, attracting several other startup and established carriers to Long Beach and helping expand the number of destinations from six to 20, including financially critical connections to New York, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.

"We've got intense competition north, south, east of us...there's no shortage of options, but the airport has managed to maintain what people love about it — the short wait times, quick access, etc. — while meeting the demands of the airlines, which is no easy task," said Mario Rodriguez, an industry veteran who took over as airport director in 2009, hired from a pool of nearly 50 candidates.

"And it continues to amaze me that people go out of their way to use Long Beach (Airport), which is in effect a kind of `boutique' airport, in the sense you can expect great service, but not in the sense that you'll be paying a huge premium for that privilege," Rodriguez said. "In this day and age of security and long lines, people are dying for something simpler. They want less hassle, quality customer service ... the kind where you're not looked at as a distraction by (airport or airline) staff if you have a question or need a bit of help, and just easy in and out."

According to surveys by the Department of Transportation, Long Beach has one of the quickest "car-to-terminal" times in the nation, averaging about 20 minutes from the time you exit your car to the jet boarding line.

The airport, which is undergoing a $140 million modernization project, is also one of the cheapest for both airlines and passengers.

Jet landing fees are nearly 40 percent cheaper than the national average, and passenger tickets are 30.5 percent cheaper than the national average, according to a 2010 California Department of Transportation survey.

The city has also been vigilant in storing funds generated by passenger facility charges, or PFCs, which are charged to commercial airline passengers at each leg of a journey. While the airport didn't begin collecting the fee until 2003 - years after other airports - the collection coincided with the sharp rise in overall traffic.

This money, coupled with several federal and state stimulus grants, transportation funds and general aviation fees, have helped the airport build up a sizable chest as it prepares for several major upgrades.

In an October credit rating report by Fitch Inc, a major international credit rating agency, the organization placed Long Beach in its second-highest category, saving the airport millions in securing funds for long-term modernization and capital improvements.

The airport is in the middle of a multiyear, $140million modernization program involving a new parking garage, passenger concourses, jet tarmacs, landscaping and roadways.

"The Stable Outlook reflects (the airport's) positive enplanement performance through the economic downturn, a manageable capital plan projecting healthy debt service coverage ratios including the issuance of additional bonds, and the continued presence and commitment of JetBlue to maintain a stable schedule of service at the airport," Fitch reported.

"The Outlook also captures LGB's ability to maintain a low-cost per enplanement over the next three- to five-year period, ensuring its low-cost position in the Los Angeles air basin." Fitch said.

The airport's growth, executed within the framework of one of the nation's strictest municipal noise ordinances, has also been an economic boon to the city's convention and tourism industries, generating by some estimates in excess of $100 million annually for area restaurants, hotels, transportation firms and event planners.

The airport is also becoming an important business travel hub, with daily links to Northern California, Denver, Phoenix, Chicago and other cities. In late 2008, Conde Nast Traveler polled 1,800 international travelers on airports, and Long Beach ranked seventh-best overall in the U.S for business travelers, best for baggage handling and third in convenience of connections.

The airport also boasted five of the world's top 15 airlines, according to the survey.

"I think the fact that a lot of our airlines are reporting 80 to 90 percent capacity proves that people are not only pleased with the airlines and the service there, but the airport itself," Rodriguez said. "You have some people coming from West L.A. or the Valley or places closer to LAX or Ontario (Airport), but they keep coming back because of the uniqueness."

The modernization project, now entering its middle phase, is designed to accommodate the airport's maximum projected capacity in coming years, a figure estimated at about 3.8 million.

"One thing we're going to guarantee is that this airport maintains the same feel and people have the same experience once modernization is complete," Rodriguez said. "That's our advantage, and it's something no other regional airport can even come close to offering, or ever will."

(Kristopher Hansen - Long Beach Press Telegram)

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