At 11:18am on Tuesday, JetBlue 231 pulled into gate 6 at Long Beach Airport after a short flight from Salt Lake City. This was — according to Cirium data — the 14,078th scheduled flight that JetBlue landed in Long Beach from Salt Lake since it started service from there in October 2002. It was also the 163,935th scheduled flight JetBlue landed in Long Beach from anywhere since it first arrived at the airport as an upstart way back in August 2001. More importantly, JetBlue 231 was the very last scheduled arrival for JetBlue in Long Beach. Beginning Wednesday, it moved its operation up the road to LAX.
JetBlue leaves after what we can generously call a turbulent 19-year run at the airport. When it opted to build its first West Coast focus city in Long Beach instead of Ontario, the airline had high hopes. Despite several different strategic turns, it never really created a successful operation.
Below, I’ve put together a chart that sums up JetBlue’s two decade run in Long Beach rather succinctly. Consider it a road map for the rest of this post.
When JetBlue arrived in 2001, it started flying from its home base at New York/JFK. The airline was a baby — albeit a fast-growing one — having only started flying the year before. And during its ramp-up period, JetBlue focused solely on long-haul in Long Beach, first to JFK and then to Washington/Dulles.
In 2002, it launched its first short-haul flight from LGB up to Oakland, an airport that JetBlue left for good earlier this year before the pandemic struck. But in those early days, JetBlue really was a long-haul airline as far as Californians were concerned. The JFK service looked like a real winner. With no low-cost competition up at LAX, travelers flocked to JetBlue’s superior product with live television down in Long Beach despite the longer traffic-choked drive required to get there.
In 2003, America West tried to run a low-fare operation from LAX to JFK, but that failed miserably. It was gone by 2005. That same summer, JetBlue was running 8 flights a day from Long Beach to JFK, but things began to change. In August 2007, Virgin America showed up at LAX, and that instantly drained travelers from Long Beach.
JetBlue had already begun to re-orient toward short-haul flying in Long Beach by the time Virgin America arrived, but that change accelerated things. By the summer of 2009, JetBlue was down to only 3 daily flights to JFK, and only a quarter of JetBlue’s Long Beach flights went further than 1,750 miles. Winter load factors began to sag, but JetBlue didn’t give up. It decided to pick a fight.
When JetBlue arrived in Long Beach, it was promised a new concourse so it wouldn’t have to use temporary double-wide trailers for long. Fast forward to 2009 and nothing had changed. At a conference, JetBlue CEO Dave Barger told me that if a new concourse didn’t move forward, the airline would consider leaving. The city didn’t take notice until the local paper picked up my interview. Then the city council exploded, trying to deflect and attack blogs as not being reliable news sources. The mayor even scolded JetBlue for not being a “real partner” in the process. The response was just one of many mind-boggling negative reactions from the city that would ultimately doom the relationship. But in this case, it at least got things moving. The new concourse opened in December 2012.
In the meantime, JetBlue had begun flying from LAX to its East Coast focus cities, and it did better from there than it did in Long Beach. At the end of 2011, JetBlue had settled in with only about 15 percent of flights going long-haul and the rest flying around the western US. It wasn’t performing particularly well, so it moved into the next phase… huge seasonality.
In late 2012 you can see the shaded blue area get much choppier on that chart above. JetBlue created a hyper-seasonal schedule that spiked in the summer and then waned in the winter. This helped to cut losses and create a sustainable, if not spectacular, presence in Long Beach, but JetBlue wasn’t happy. It had a new idea.
JetBlue started talking in 2013 about getting a customs and immigration facility in Long Beach. It wanted to better utilize its slots, but it was out of ideas in the domestic market. Down to Mexico and Central America? Well, that was an opportunity that it thought could work. Even before JetBlue officially made the request, the community mobilized against the airline. Using scare tactics, they convinced residents that a limited customs facility would result in the airport turning into LAX with widebody flights all day and night operating around the world. It was absurd, but the opposition was well-organized and pressure mounted.
When JetBlue officially requested the facility in 2015, it seemed like a long shot. Then JetBlue received another blow. In 2016, Long Beach opened up nine additional slots under the noise ordinance, and Southwest surprised by putting its hat into the ring. With another airline interested in growing at the airport for the first time in years, JetBlue had one more headache to deal with. If it didn’t fully utilize its slots, Southwest would be able to temporarily use them to compete. That made the whole “hyper seasonal” structure unsustainable.
It took some time but in early 2017, the city once again voted against JetBlue, declining to even continue to discuss the possibility of a customs facility by a vote of 8 to 1. That misguided decision left JetBlue backed into a corner. As Southwest continued to make moves, JetBlue went for broke. It decided to pick up more slots, grow, and use them year-round. This can easily be seen on the chart. It’s accompanied by declining load factors and flat revenue. This was, of course, disastrous.
By the middle of 2018, the experiment was over. JetBlue stopped trying to keep Southwest out and instead just focused on optimizing the network it had. That meant trying to go back to a reduced, more seasonal schedule. That, however, was again short-lived.
JetBlue may have been a good community partner in general, but it had a fatal flaw. The airline simply could not bring itself to obey the airport’s noise curfew. Airlines are only supposed to operate between 7am and 10pm, but there is a one hour buffer until 11pm for late arrivals. JetBlue, with scheduled arrivals from ATC-delayed East Coast airports later in the day, was a constant violator that couldn’t be bothered to even operate regularly within the buffer. The problem had gone on for so long that the city had come to an agreement with the airline years earlier that resulted in payments to the city library system every time there was a violation.
In 2017, JetBlue had a whopping 429 operations between 10pm and 11pm along with 247 after 11pm. No other airline had more than 40 combined. It was a constant annoyance to the part of the community that was most organized against the airline. With the schedule cut, JetBlue improved in 2018, but it still operated 302 times between 10pm and 11pm and 185 times after that.
The airline’s desire to squat on slots during the winter and refusal to cull flights after hours led the city to take further action. At the end of 2018, the city changed the rules on utilizing slots. This was squarely targeted at JetBlue, and it required near-full utilization of slots or they would be taken away.
JetBlue gave up 10 of its slots in 2019, realizing that it couldn’t economically run an operation that would comply with the new rules. The airline continued to limp along, giving up slots as it went. Most would have expected JetBlue to give up in Long Beach years ago, but for some reason — whether due to employee loyalty reasons or sheer stubbornness — it did not. Instead, it started to ride the airport out with a “death by a thousand cuts” strategy.
In January of this year, JetBlue said it would cut again, dropping down toward 15 slots and abandoning routes that it was flying head-to-head against Southwest. Then the pandemic hit, and everything fell apart. JetBlue operated sporadically — never having scheduled more than 7 departures in a day since early May with many days seeing only a single flight — but that was ok since slot rules were temporarily suspended.
In July, it finally gave up. But instead of just walking away from a failed West Coast strategy, JetBlue has now doubled down, building up a new, bigger focus city at highly-competitive LAX up the road. It announced its last day in Long Beach would be October 6, but even that wasn’t set in stone. The last flight was supposed to arrive from Vegas, but that was canceled in a late-August schedule pulldown. Salt Lake would now be the last operation.
When I spoke with JetBlue at the end of August, I mentioned I might buy a ticket on the last flight, but I was told it likely wasn’t final and I might want to wait. Wait I did, but the airline never told me whether the schedule was set. By the time I decided it was, it was far too expensive to justify taking a joy ride during a pandemic, so I didn’t go.
The last “full day” of operations was Sunday, October 4 with 5 flights including the final one from JFK. On October 6, there was just the only lonely roundtrip to Salt Lake City.
The flight was operated by N509JB in the Tartan tail fin scheme. That aircraft was delivered to JetBlue back in July 2000, and may very well have operated one of the airline’s first flights at the airport. I don’t know the answer to that. As I understand it, it was a subdued affair with the only special event being a game of bingo onboard to give away prizes… and apparently an airing of grievances at 35,000 feet.
I was hoping that we’d see N587JB operate the last flight. That airplane was the only one given the Building Blocks tailfin, a design that was the winner in a contest to celebrate the airline’s 10th anniversary a decade ago. I was there when it rolled out in early 2011. Troy Bokosky — a Long Beach crewmember at the time — made the design. It would have been a fitting tribute to the airline’s history in Long Beach… if it still existed.
At the end of 2018, that tail was painted over, replaced by the Highrise fin which was designed as, of all things, a tribute to New York. That little bit of Long Beach is gone. And so is all the other Blue-ness. This is a Southwest town now.