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Long Beach City Council Responds to JetBlue with Mixed Signals

For those of you who don’t live in the LA area, the interview with Dave Barger I published last week is probably a distant memory. But for those living in this area, and especially those in Long Beach, this has become a very hot topic indeed. A couple nights JetBlue Long Beach Fightago, the city council got together to discuss the issue, and I found myself shaking my head more often than not at some of the reactions from the council.

First, let me refresh your memory. In my interview, Dave said that Long Beach needed to make good on its promises to build the terminal improvements and parking garage that have been in the works for years. I asked if JetBlue would leave the airport if that didn’t happen and he responded that he “wouldn’t take any option off the table.”

This didn’t spark much response from the community until the local newspaper, the Press-Telegram picked up on the interview. Soon, JetBlue had confirmed that the comments were reported accurately. The LA Times, local television news outlets, and USA Today picked up the story as well. That was enough to get things moving.

The frenzy reached a point where the city council took notice. Three councilmembers, including the Vice Mayor, added a recommendation to this week’s council agenda (PDF) to “request City Manager to report to the City Council with timelines on the Long Beach Airport terminal enhancement status including parking structure construction update.”

That set the stage for what ended up being an odd set of statements. You can watch it for yourself on the city’s video archive site (click on item 15 at the bottom left to skip ahead).

All of them at least paid lip service to the idea that they understood the frustration with such a lengthy delay, but some were more convincing than others. On one side, we had a group, including the Vice Mayor, that tried to extend the olive branch to JetBlue. They wanted to see the project move forward, and you could tell that they were feeling the frustration as well. I think councilman Gary DeLong said it best:

Hopefully everyone can agree that reality is this has taken far too long . . . . We have been in this nine years and we have yet to break ground on anything. We’ve had lots of process but very little results . . . . We won’t agonize over why it’s taken nine years but let’s see if we can’t make up for some of that long delay by getting this project off the ground.

Amen. Let’s not look back, but let’s just get things moving now. I couldn’t agree more. New Airport Director Mario Rodriguez was there, and he tried to stay above the fray completely by focusing on the importance of cost control. That is certainly something airlines like to hear, but these are conversations that should have been had long ago (not his fault, he’s brand new). He did say that meetings are being held again with JetBlue in New York in a couple of weeks. Just one little helpful piece of advice before you go, Mario . . . it’s Dave Barger, not “Berger.”

On the other side of the fence we found a more concerning viewpoint. Some councilmembers went on the attack, and more than than one thought it would be a good idea to attack the media, including blogs. Oh yeah, that’s constructive.

Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske said, “I do think that the reporting of the comment that was, by the way, leaked directly from somebody at JetBlue to the blogger and then sent directly to the Press-Telegram and the District Weekly . . . I think the reporting was irresponsible.”

Wrong. The comment was not leaked by anyone at JetBlue. I was invited to have a one-on-one sit down interview with CEO Dave Barger himself at the Phoenix Aviation Symposium (as were other media attendees at the conference). Everything you read came directly from him. In fact, once I turned my chicken-scratch into a transcript, I sent it to JetBlue to make sure I hadn’t mistakenly misquoted him. I didn’t, however, send it to the Press-Telegram or the District Weekly at any point.

Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga seemed to think that the issue was somehow less valid because it originated in a blog. “This is a blog, give me a break. If we start spending this much time on a blog, we’re really in trouble. So I would like to ask the Press-Telegram to go beyond blogness and get into real news stories. . . let’s stay positive.”

Mayor Bob Foster jumped on the bandwagon as well. “I agree. We should not take blogs as professional journalism. The professional journalists should take that as well.”

Is this a joke? It doesn’t matter if this was written on a bathroom wall. It came directly from the CEO of the largest airline at this airport. Does it really do any good to try to discredit blogs or traditional media in the process? No. It also shows that they’re quite out of touch with the current state of reporting. There are many reputable blogs and discrediting them with a blanket statement like that will most certainly not serve them well.

In the end, the most mind-boggling part of all of this was the hostility toward JetBlue for taking this out in to the media in the first place. It was none other than Mayor Bob Foster himself who closed the discussion by giving JetBlue a stern talking-to.

The one thing I would ask from everybody involved in this is professional conduct. . . . 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 councilmembers office, don’t do it in the press. That serves no purpose and believe it or not . . . you probably have made this harder to finance . . . . It can be dealt with but it’s not the way to conduct business.

Does anyone believe that JetBlue would have taken this to the press if they were having success through other channels? I highly doubt it. The facts are this: It’s been nine years since this process began and no ground has been broken. The bulk of the discussion of substance last night centered around how to make this a fiscally responsible project. I understand the state of the economy puts this at the top of everyone’s mind, but these things should have been decided long ago. If that’s the type of discussion that’s happening right now, it doesn’t sound like something that is going to be ready any time soon.

I’d like to think that this little dust-up will at least spark something to happen, but watching the mayor and some of the councilmembers throw barbs last night hardly instills confidence. Hopefully it’s just grandstanding for the cameras, and the mayor and council have a different tune in face-to-face discussions with the airline.

In the end, the group did unanimously approve (except for the one absent councilmember) the motion to have the city manager report on the project. If I heard correctly, this should happen in early May, so there is some hope that this will receive renewed focus.

If you’re interesting in reading more, the Press-Telegram has a good recap of the meeting.

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