The Long Beach Airport noise ordinance is far from straightforward, but it has coveted grandfathered status which allows it to continue to restrict traffic at the airport while most other airports cannot. Now, the airport has informed the city council that it will add 5 more daily flights to the mix, and it’s pretty much entirely because JetBlue is gone. Allow me to explain…
The noise ordinance allows for 41 permanent daily air carrier slot pairs at the airport along with 25 daily commuter slots. (The commuter slots are for aircraft under a certain weight, translating into any 50 seaters, most larger turboprops, and the CRJ-700 qualifying. But nobody uses them currently, so we will just ignore them.)
The 41 slots are not meant as a ceiling but rather as a baseline. The point of the noise ordinance is to limit noise to be at or below the levels allowed in the noise bucket. If the noise is far enough below that limit, then more slots can be added.
For many years, the number stayed at 41, and for nearly 20 years, those were dominated by JetBlue. JetBlue tried a ton of different schedule configurations as it grasped over and over to make the airport profitable for the airline. Its last gasp was to try to get a customs facility, but the city shot that down. JetBlue was left squatting on slots and just hoping it could find a way to not lose money at the airport.
Then the airport started flexing the muscles of the noise ordinance rules. In December 2015, it announced the noise budget would allow the airport to add 9 new daily slots to make an even 50. This was the opening Southwest had waited for, so it put its hat in the ring. It received 4 of the slots, and that was the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. With JetBlue still squatting and underutilizing slots, Southwest was able to temporarily borrow them per airport rules, so it kept growing.
JetBlue decided to mount a defense. It ramped up its slot usage significantly in early 2017, trying to cut Southwest off. This is where our story really begins. This data below says it all.
Operations and Noise Violations at Long Beach Airport
Data via Cirium
JetBlue’s efforts to ramp up didn’t work for the airline, but it also resulted in an operational mess. There are reductions in noise allowances between 10pm and 11pm but then it gets much more strict from 11pm to 7am. JetBlue, with its poor operation, repeatedly violated noise rules and got itself into hot water. The community was angry, but that was nothing new. JetBlue had been doing this for so long that it came to a special settlement that required it to pay money to the city libraries every time it broke the rules.
JetBlue ran this higher level operation through August of 2018 before pulling back down again and returning to squatting on slots. You can see what that did for violations overnight. But the slot-squatting finally became too much to stand. In December 2018, the airport announced airlines had to better utilize their slots or they’d lose them permanently. JetBlue decided to just fly its smaller schedule and give back the slots it had to return. In April 2019, Southwest was able to put those to good use and grow more.
Meanwhile, the airport continued to do its annual noise study, and in December 2019, it said it could add another 3 daily flights, going up to 53 daily. That lookback period had covered the time after JetBlue reduced its flying. With fewer violations, the airport acted and added more.
Of course, when the pandemic hit, nobody needed all those slots anyway. But for JetBlue, this was the end of the line. JetBlue’s final departure from Long Beach happened on October 6, 2020. Southwest was then able to double its presence overnight. Since that time, noise violations have virtually disappeared as Southwest has respected the limits and scheduled flights properly. The two airlines could not have acted more differently in this regard, and this has now paid dividends for Southwest.
In a recently-released memo to the Long Beach City Council, airport director Cynthia Guidry announced the airport would add 5 more daily slots. The noise review was completed internally and by two separate consulting firms for the period of October 1, 2021 through September 30, 2022. I’ll lift this chart showing just how far under the noise budget the airport has been at the two main “remote monitoring terminal” stations.
via City of Long Beach
You can read the memo for full details, but what this shows is that the airport has not just snuck under the top of the noise bucket but rather it is WAY under.
At first, I was surprised to see flights added. After all, the airport still hasn’t fully recovered from the pandemic, and so I figured the noise from air carriers was likely misleadingly low. But that’s why the airport was actually pretty conservative here.
The initial study said the airport should add 6 daily slots. The peer review of that data said that the number should be between 5 and 7 daily. The airport went on the low end and decided 5 was the right number.
There’s no real reason to think this will somehow blow up the noise budget, but of course, if it does, then the airport will take slots back. There’s a reason these supplemental slots are only given for one year at a time. Considering how much room is left in the noise bucket, it seems unlikely that these additions will have a big impact… unless some airline decides to start blowing through the curfew all the time to spike the numbers.
If JetBlue were still in the market, that would seem like a foregone conclusion. But none of the airlines in the market today are going to run an operation like that. Or at least, they aren’t going to schedule their flights to allow a poor operation to ruin everything.
So now, the airport goes out to the airlines to see who wants them. My guess is that it’s Southwest, Southwest, and Southwest.
Technically, there are 5 airlines on the waiting list.
- Breeze Airways
- American Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
Breeze had other slots that it never used, instead opting to use the slots it picked up in Orange County. It seems unlikely it will want these.
I suppose Swoop is a possibility, and if Swoop really wanted to fly in the market, it could get 2 slots. American just gave back a slot, so it can’t be interested. And Hawaiian seems pretty content with its 2 slots, though I’m pretty sure everyone would be happy to see the airline take more.
Regardless of who benefits, they can all thank JetBlue for walking away. The vastly improved operation at the airport that followed JetBlue’s departure allowed opportunity for more flights to come right on in.