The writing was on the wall when Long Beach changed its slot utilization rules last year. Unless JetBlue ramped up significantly, slots were going to have to be given back to the city. Sure enough, that time has come. JetBlue is giving up 10 of its current 34 slots. It’s expected that this is good news for those who like to fly Southwest, but oddly enough, the opposite may be true. It all hinges on… Delta.
The Slot Math
I don’t need to go into the long history of slots and air service at Long Beach Airport, but you can certainly search the archives here if you’d like. In recent times, Long Beach Airport has had 50 slot pairs per day for use by airplanes larger than a small regional. Until this announcement, those were divvied up as follows:
JetBlue had been as high as 35 slots but it gave one back so that Hawaiian could enter. But JetBlue never actually wanted to use all those slots anyway. It liked to vary by season and use the slots only as much as it had to in order to keep competition out. But once Southwest showed interest, JetBlue had to increase utilization. Why? Because airlines have to publish their schedules a few months in advance, and if they don’t use their slots, other airlines can step in to “temporarily” use them until the slot-holder wants them back.
Nobody wanted to temporarily use slots before, but Southwest did. JetBlue ramped up to prevent that from happening, and it was financially disastrous. Last September, JetBlue put its tail between its legs and went back down to flying 22 to 24 flights a day, where it was before it ramped up.
- Austin – 1x
- Boston – 1x
- Bozeman – 2x/week winter only
- Las Vegas – 3x
- New York/JFK – 2x
- Oakland – 2x
- Portland – 1x
- Reno – 1x
- Sacramento – 2x
- Salt Lake City – 3x
- San Francisco – 2x
- San Jose – 2x
- Seattle – 2x
- Steamboat Springs – 2x/week winter only
That’s obviously far short of the 34 slots that JetBlue controlled, but it wasn’t a problem under the old rules that said an airline could basically use its slots half the time and still keep them. The city didn’t like that, and once it tightened up utilization rules late last year, JetBlue had to either ramp up or give up the excess. It wisely chose the latter, and it will now be giving back 10 slots so it can utilize the 24 that remain as required.
The Delta Wildcard
So now the question is, who will get the slots? Much has been made of Hawaiian being first on the waitlist, but that’s just a technicality. When an airline enters Long Beach, it gets two slot pairs to use. When Hawaiian started, only one was available, so it went on the waitlist for the other one. Hawaiian reiterated to me when asked that it is still focusing on Honolulu. I don’t expect to see it pick up an extra slot.
Also on the waitlist is Delta. Spokesperson Liz Savadelis confirmed to me that “we continue to be interested in acquiring additional slots at Long Beach Airport.” I found that surprising since it already uses four slots a day to fly to Salt Lake. I can’t imagine that Salt Lake needs more service (or even the service it has), so could another hub be in the cards? The airline won’t say, but top candidates would likely be Seattle and Atlanta. I would expect all of these to be poor performers and that’s being kind, but maybe Delta is just playing the foil here. It knows Southwest wants more slots, and it has the unique ability to prevent the airline from getting them.
American remains at 3 daily flights, and I’d imagine it would more likely give up slots before it tried to acquire more.
That leaves us with Southwest, the only airline that has cared to build a non-trivial presence in Long Beach since JetBlue came to town nearly 20 years ago. Today, Southwest is running this daily schedule:
- Denver – Sat/Sun only
- Las Vegas – 3x
- Oakland – 4x
- Sacramento – 4x
- San Jose – 4x
Remember, Southwest only has 6 slots of its own, so how is it running 15 every weekday? It’s already temporarily using all those slots that JetBlue isn’t using. (Weekends are easier with even more pulldown on other airlines, and that’s why Denver can operate.) It will likely continue to do the same as long as Delta doesn’t decide to play spoiler.
If Delta wants to fight Southwest for slots, it can only be to prevent Southwest from getting them and not for actual commercial reasons. The worst case scenario would be that Delta gets 5 and Southwest gets 5, unless a dark horse enters the race. If that were to happen, Southwest would have to actually cut its schedule by 4 flights a day so Delta could operate.
I really can’t imagine this being an issue. Maybe Delta picks up one slot and then it’s not a problem for anyone. But even if Southwest gets them all, it won’t give the airline to ability to expand much beyond what it already has. At best, this will just be status quo for travelers.