JetBlue’s Two Decade Run in Long Beach Ends With a Whimper

JetBlue

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.

Data via Cirium

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.

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27 comments on “JetBlue’s Two Decade Run in Long Beach Ends With a Whimper

  1. Just like so many things in the world, it is a shame that covid may, in time, be seen as the reason for B6′ departure from LGB but they had set their departure from the airport in motion years before. The City of Long Beach has been vilified way too much in the LGB-B6 sagas when it is B6 that solely chose a path to operational unreliability that would have been resolved with B6 departure far faster at any other California airport. The simple reality is that operational reliability costs money and B6 was not willing to invest to keep its operation on-time; other carriers that operated from the same airports on both the east and west coasts and on some of the very same routes as B6 managed to operate more reliably.
    Covid has shown that serving secondary markets from the opposite side of the country doesn’t work which is why B6 is dismantling large portions of its west coast network and trying to move into primary markets instead. The relationship with LGB caused B6 to evaluate its network but its west coast network was not sustainable in a lower economical growth environment, let alone the wholesale gutting of demand that has occurred since March 13, 2020.
    B6′ acrimonious relationship with LGB will go down as a textbook example of how not to do community relationships.

    1. “The City of Long Beach has been vilified way too much in the LGB-B6 sagas when it is B6 that solely chose a path to operational unreliability that would have been resolved with B6 departure far faster at any other California airport. The simple reality is that operational reliability costs money and B6 was not willing to invest to keep its operation on-time; other carriers that operated from the same airports on both the east and west coasts and on some of the very same routes as B6 managed to operate more reliably.”

      Not sure I totally agree with those statements Tim. When a city council plays games in the way LB has done over the years, it’s no wonder they pulled out. Also with the move to LAX, B6 has greater opportunity to forge partnerships that weren’t possible while at LGB.

      1. Sean,
        nearly every semi-major airport (not all but most) in CA have strict noise restrictions. B6 violated LGB’s noise regulations – which were actually far less stringent than some CA airports- even while B6 was asking for an international arrivals facility that B6 needed to build outa presence.
        There is no doubt that LAX offers more potential for B6, but alot of airlines are going to seek to fill AA’s void at LAX.
        LAX was not an option for years so B6 needed to make LGB work.
        If LGB alone was denying B6′ ability to expand, then we could point the finger at them. But B6 repeatedly violated LGB’s noise regulations as very few airlines have done in as any other city. It is hard to separate LGB’s actions against B6 from B6′ actions against LGB.

        1. A lot of airlines are going to seek to fill AA’s void, but only B6 got the gates AA no longer seem to need. If AA keeps shrink, B6 will slowly take up most of T5. It’s a much better scenario than if B6 was in the same terminal as DL or WN, who are clearly going to grow long term.

          LGB’s noise complaints only really became an issue after the that straw for JetBlue in Jan 2017. After that, JetBlue was basically looking for ways out and not worried about making Long beach happy. Also, LGB is not like other airports in LA Basin. It is the lowest yielding of all airport in the area. Normally, an airport like that would bend over backwards to keep its primary tenant happy.

  2. Great article. The city of Long Beach really shot them self in the foot. Their attitude to JetBlue reminds me of Long Island City and Amazon, but on a smaller scale. The loss of hundreds of high paying jobs which LBG desperately need, the city does not seem to care because now southwest is there, let’s see how well that works out. And the fact that JetBlue did not even keep LGB as a spoke to JFK or BOS really tells you what JetBlue thinks of how they have been treated by the city and airport management over the years.

    No JetBlue is not perfect they could have and should have rescheduled the red eye flights to avoid impact of the curfew, but they were a good neighbor and the pilots had special departure procedures to try to minimize the noise impact and the company donated millions of dollars to the city over the years.

    Long Beach has lost tens of thousands of jobs over the years just look at the aviation industry that use to be at the airport. MD/Boeing, Mooney, and now JetBlue. All gone and never coming back.

    1. A slight correction – Amazon in Long Island City was a $300,000,000 giveaway to a corporation that didn’t need the carrot to set up shop in a city that has some of the most powerful businesses on the planet. Everything else is on target though.

  3. JetBlue is quite a different airline than when it started. As its costs have gone up, JetBlue has been looking to claim a larger portion of the higher yielding crowd. The entrance of VX in west coast showed that it’s secondary airport strategy simply does not work. The success of mint franchise showed the importance of LAX and SFO for this evolving airline. It tried to buy VX, but couldn’t outbid AS. It likely would’ve cut LGB down to JFK/BOS/SLC if the VX deal had been successful. It stayed in LGB as long as it did due to lack of gate availability at LAX. Now with the pandemic, it has the opportunity to get almost all the gate access it wanted from the VX deal but at a fraction of the cost. They look likely to enter Europe next year.

    They are becoming more and more like legacy airline as more and more of their fleet has mint cabin. It simply makes no sense for an airline like this to have a base in LGB or OAK. That’s why they are out of both. Even if LGB had cooperated with the custom facility, it still would’ve made sense for JetBlue to consolidate at LAX. I think the only difference would’ve been how many flights they keep at LGB. Leaving LGB completely is a giant finger at Long Beach city council for how they were treated.

    Comments from JetBlue indicate that they are all-in with LAX. EWR-LAX performance looks to be really good so far. I think it will become the second most profitable route in their system after JFK-LAX. You just can’t get the same level of performance on mint transcons from secondary airports. The calculation has to be that improved performance in other part of their network far outweighs the losses they are likely to incur on west coast stuff. They have added quite a few routes out of SFO recently, including non-focus city ones. I think they have plans for a smaller focus city operation there too. That will give them the west coast presence they wanted with the attempted VX purchase. They can’t capture a larger portion of the top corporate contract without greater west coast presence. They can’t capture much of that west coast to Europe traffic without some level of presence in west coast. Being pigeonholed into a regional airline only for NYC/Boston/Florida leaves JetBlue vulnerable to the type of buildup that they faced with DL at Boston. They had the opportunity with this pandemic to break out of that due to their better cash position. It certainly looks like they are taking that opportunity. And they are not afraid of burning some more cash in short term to reaching that goal.

    1. Your being way to nice IF They would have been successful buying VX LGB would have feed SFO like PSA back in the day. They Also may have kept feed LAS since VX had a bigger mini focus city in LAS than B6.
      But the Duel Build up of SFO and LAX is just a page out of a post VX and B6 merger book.
      Pandemic or no pandemic it was only a matter of time before JetBlue pulled the triggers on dropping LGB since it lost the VX bid.

  4. Cranky,
    Has the animosity between B6 and the City of Long Beach ever occur with other airline tenants? If so, what happened?

    1. Angry Bob – In Long Beach specifically? Sure, I mean, there was a very heated battle that led to the current noise ordinance in the first place back in the 1980s and 1990s. Here’s an old article. Alaska was one of the main airlines there after buying Jet America.
      https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-07-31-hl-20262-story.html

      But that was mostly settled by the courts. I don’t know that any airline has ever tried to be so ingrained in the community in Long Beach before.

      1. Thank you CF. I remember vaguely that similar battles occurred at MDW with Midway Airlines and CGX with Ozark and Trans World Express.

    1. B6 is to the east coast what AS is to those on the west coast, but with a longer history. One thing I do find interesting about AS is despite it’s name & service to it’s namesake state, it’s primarily a north south carrier out of Seattle & CF covered this in a post a few years ago that was quite interesting.

      1. I am amused by all of these data-free tired industry truisms asserted in several posts above, regarding the relative weakness of yields on flights out of secondary airports. The data clearly illustrates, and has for several years now, that, at least in Southern California, airlines generate similar load factors as those at LAX, as well as 18-22% fare premiums over LAX at three secondary airports: SNA, ONT and BUR.

        It would take a massive amount of growth and competition at those three airports to ever see that fare premium evaporate. (Not to mention, those parts of Southern California where those three airports are located; i.e., ex-Los Angeles proper, are the areas where demographic and economic growth is happening in the region anyway — and the COVID pandemic has only injected a bit of nitro into those trends).

        The simple truth is that, while LAX is certainly easier to market/sell to the rest of the country, airlines, due to competition-spawned-depressed-airfares, have to sell a couple of dozen extra seats on a typical narrow-body flight at LAX just to generate the same revenue that they do on the same aircraft flown out of SNA, ONT, and BUR. It’s pretty simple math. For the sake of the hollow accomplishment of increased-market-share-bereft-of-pricing-power, and a less challenging marketing effort, fare premiums are left on the table.

        What is more, while the rest of the country knows where LAX is more so than secondary airports in the region, so do Southern Californians — and they pay (even in the current environment) a fair amount more to avoid the miserable experience of getting there on the region’s sclerotic freeways – well, at least at they do at every other airport besides LGB.

        So airlines that want to have a strong position in the originating Southern California market ignore these three secondary airports at the risk of a significant opportunity cost.

        I wouldn’t dare to speak for secondary airports in the rest of the country, but lumping a fluttering duck like LGB in with ONT, BUR and SNA just misrepresents what the data actually tell you about the Southern California market.

        1. Very interesting point about higher average fares and similar loads at the other three LA airports. I did not know that.

          With the city managing it the way it does, it’s no wonder LGB is the distant laggard of the bunch. But hey, 12 short years after arriving, they managed to get B6 out of the double wide trailers!

  5. If I were Jet Blue, I would have made the final incoming flight a 9:55 pm arrival from JFK, making sure it had a 3-hour “mechanical delay.”

    1. Hahaha, good one.

      The only thing better would be for the plane to also have a go-around or two (or do a low approach), and request a “special” approach and go-around that didn’t follow the usual noise abatement procedures.

      1. Too bad A320s can’t do a fuel dump!

        Presuming Cranky Enterprises and the Snyder family compound would not be affected, of course.

  6. Thanks. A wonderful post, probably be a chapter in one of your airline books you must be writing. I suspect you have enough material for a whole book on every airline on earth!

    As to LGB, I suspect that there are many, many locations across this fair land quite similar to it, some even worse. I’ve always chuckled about the situation at my old hometown, small, nowhere near the size of LGB. The characters–the liked but eccentric local mayor, who had never flown on an airliner in his life nor had felt the need for local airline service of any kind; the local-conservative folks who felt spending one dollar for the airport or to encourage or support airline service was never to be accepted; totally unacceptable; the local-against-everything folks who feared unbelievable noise pollution and the sure-liklihood of a plane crashing into their million-dollar property; plus the hard-working, dedicated local airport manager, trying, trying to make the airport grow even with a minimal level of airline service: and finally, some airline, making the pitch, asking for just some small (haha!) fiinancial support, promising the world, what it knew it couldn’t and wouldn’t carry out!

    Just life, I guess, but thanks for your post.

  7. I can’t wait until WN realizes there’s no money to be made there and drops LGB like a bad habit. Then if they are lucky they might have two flights a day to Phoenix. Which, given the way the city behaved with B6 over the past two decades, is probably all they deserve. NIMBYs of the world unite! Just don’t tell them the airport was there before they were. They don’t like having to deal with logic.

    1. Bill,

      You have a point there & I’ll add that WN also has a focus city at LAX in T1, so how much value will they get out of being at LGB other than to LAS, PHX & OAK/ SJC.

      1. Fares at LGB have been so low for so long that WN will obviously look to raise them, like they always do when they squeeze out the competition.

        Difference at LGB is WN is capped by the fares charged in the competitive LAX environment. Nobody is going to pay MORE to fly from LGB, historically they’ve had a hard time filling planes with less expensive fares.

        Prediction – many unused LGB slots within two short years.

  8. Flew into LGB from JFK in 2015 on B6 during the holiday period. The flight was delayed 55 minutes on departure, and so we arrived after 10PM. The airport was a really nice alternative to LAX, though limited in its amenities and it does not draw as much corporate traffic as SNA further down. B6 will find itself struggling at LAX. No one really dominates LAX, and it is an intense horse race between AA, UA, DL, WN, AS, and now B6. AA may be shrinking at LAX but it is still the largest of the US3 and with the AS partnership, it will more than make up for domestic capacity it has lost. DL is spending billions making its LAX terminals palatable, but the timing could not have been worse. In the end, I suspect DL will make LAX work. UA will retain its footprint because it still has corporate contracts. WN’s operation has been largely untouched for a while. B6 is rolling the dice at the worst possible time.

  9. At the end of the day, the same shorthaul fare on WN got you so much more than B6. No change fees, two free checked bags. The lack of TV doesn’t make a difference on a one hour flight. The last time I flew to LGB, it was on WN and I told myself there was no going back to B6, at least not unless it was significantly discounted.

  10. Oh the number of curfew violation emails I wrote from my LGB B6 Ops office to the city from 2012-2020. I’m not gonna divulge stuff on here but I saw this coming as far back as 2015 but most of my fellow coworkers didn’t want to hear it.

    1. Well, first of all, there is NO CURFEW at LGB! It is a change in noise limits to a level that even a C-152 can’t meet.

      IROPS were not the issue. If a LGB flight is late, it’s understandable, even if it’s 3am! However, to operate another city’s flights out of LGB, because of a true hard curfew at that other city, is blatant disregard for the spirit of the noise ordinance. Also, “ferrying” a plane in/out at 2am for mx upgrade is another blatant disregard for the noise ordinance. It was situations like that gave JB a bad reputation.

  11. You failed to point out American Airlines, in 2003, threatened to sue the City of Long Beach oslot holdersver a “secret agreement” between JetBlue and the city over slots. This forced JetBlue’s hand to use the slots before they planned to. That’s why they started OAK…remember the “Eight is enough” campaign they used to market the OAK flights? These flights were slot holders. The move by American changed the course of history for JetBlue. American at one point flew 3 JFK (757), 4 DFW, and 1 ORD!

    This completely changed JBs strategy…remember, they wanted to be as long haul carrier – and were set up as a long haul carrier. They flew LGB to: JFK, BOS, IAD, ORD, FLL, ATL. OAK and LAS were started as slot holders. At some point, I think they realized there was a market within the West Coast.

    You constantly blast the low yields out of LGB. Keep in mind, two factors impact LGB yields. First, LGB is one of the few airports in the country that is majority single class (no premium class/first class), and short flight segments.

    Also, the catchment area of LGB is not a circle overlapping SNA and LAX. Keep in mind, the 605 corridor Whittier, and points north, LGB is the best options.

    It’s a shame JB didn’t keep token service to JFK and BOS. If they feel most of their customers will follow them to LAX, I believe they will find other options out of LGB or SNA.

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