JetBlue Officially Requests a Customs and Immigration Facility in Long Beach

If you’ve been waiting for a fun-filled airport battle, then you’ve come to the right place. After months of discussion about the possibility, JetBlue yesterday officially asked for the city of Long Beach to request a customs and immigration facility at Long Beach Airport. Let the battle begin.

Long Beach Airport NIMBYs

For a little background on what we know so far, take a look at my post from last summer. See, JetBlue has been interested in a customs facility for awhile, and that has given the anti-airport crowd plenty of time to ramp up. It has reached a nearly deafening roar, and that’s too bad.

This really shouldn’t be a fight, at least not yet. All JetBlue has done now is officially request that the city ask the feds for a facility. There’s a whole lot more work that has to be done before anyone can truly evaluate whether this is a good idea or not. But hey, don’t let facts get in the way of the anti-airport crowd. They’ve been restlessly waiting to pick a fight ever since the new concourse was built. Now they have something to latch on to.

Over the last few months, this group has tried to scare the public with some slippery-slope doom-and-gloom. They’ve suggested that if a customs facility opened up, that would allow horrible things to happen; airlines could easily break the noise ordinance. The reality is that noise ordinances are very fragile anyway, and most have not been allowed by the feds. Long Beach is lucky that it has one, but a customs facility is not going to impact it. In reality, the goal should be to keep all stakeholders happy; then nobody will challenge it. Denying a customs facility without doing any due diligence? That does not make your stakeholders happy.

Over the last couple of weeks, tactics seem to have shifted. The anti-airport crowd grabbed on to a new thought. The argument goes that if you allow a customs facility to be built, then general aviation and charter traffic will go through the roof as every aircraft originating outside the US will now make a beeline toward Long Beach. That is hilarious.

In JetBlue’s letter to the airport yesterday, it had this to say:

Following the City Council Study Session held recently on the Airport Noise Ordinance, and with no nexus whatsoever between enhancing the Airport with a modest Customs facility and in any way disturbing the sanctity or legality of the Ordinance, JetBlue requests the City seek the presence of US Customs for purposes of processing aircraft under the Customs User Fee Airport program. Given the need for a facility capable of processing no more than three aircraft in any one hour period, it is JetBlue’s belief that LGB qualifies under the guidelines for a User Fee Airport.

Notice that JetBlue is looking for this to be a User Fee Airport. What that means is that, unlike a Port of Entry, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) provides contract services, with everything to be reimbursed by the users. In other words, inspectors would be available when international flights are scheduled to arrive and then JetBlue (and ultimately, the traveler) would end up footing the bill. This wouldn’t be some bonanza for private aircraft.

This is what John Wayne Airport down in Orange County does, and guess what? As John Wayne Airport spokesperson Jenny Wedge succinctly noted “Only commercial airlines utilize our Customs facilities.” Long Beach would be no different. [Correction: I’ve been doing more research on user fee airports, and general aviation certainly can use it. In Orange County they’ve made a rule where it’s only for commercial flights. Even if Long Beach didn’t do that, it would be high cost and the demand would be low for non-commercial users.] But hey, scare tactics work great, right?

What’s really incredible to me is that this is so early in the process, it hardly seems like the time to have formed a final opinion. I know I haven’t. Here are some of the things I want to know.

  • How much will the facility cost to build and how much of that is JetBlue willing to pay for? (They paid the vast majority at JFK.)
  • Is JetBlue willing to agree to utilize its slots above and beyond what it does now? (It only runs in the high-teens daily in the winter and mid-twenties daily in the summer when it can be running 32 every day.)
  • Will CBP even be willing to staff the airport? (This isn’t a gimme.)

If JetBlue wants to fund most of this and is willing to commit to increasing service to some great Latin destinations without changing the noise ordinance, then this would be a great deal… if CBP goes along.

If that’s not the case, then maybe it’s not the right thing for Long Beach. But we won’t know that for awhile. This is a long process which will undoubtedly be made longer by the anti-airport crowd.

Were that crowd to successfully torpedo this project without even having looked at it, I’d actually fear for the future of the airport as a JetBlue focus city. It’s no secret that this is the least profitable of JetBlue’s focus cities. I’ve always assumed that the airline wouldn’t leave because it had a crew base and valued employees very highly. But if a city really doesn’t want a good partner, then JetBlue would have a good explanation to its crewmembers on why it’s leaving. Plus, we have a new CEO running the show over there, so I’d assume nothing is off the table.

Then again, maybe that’s exactly what the anti-airport crowd wants.

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