Long Beach Airport

Thursday, October 7, 2004
Council Members Want Airport Guiding Principles
By Harry Saltzgaver
The Grunion Gazette, Long Beach (CA)

After ducking and dodging for more than a year, City Council members – at least some of them – appear ready to start making decisions about what the Long Beach Airport should be in the future. Tuesday night, the six members of the council present agreed to ask its own Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to develop a set of “guiding principles” for marketing of and users’ responsibilities at the airport. Those guiding principles, once approved by the entire council, likely would be used to frame the discussion about improvements at the airport terminal – a debate expected in early November, when recommendations from the Airport Advisory Commission come before the council.

“The guiding principles utilized in the recommended improvements stated that they were ‘only meant to apply to terminal facility sizing’,” Eighth District Councilwoman Rae Gabelich said. “However, there are many larger city-related issues that must be considered while the process takes place on terminal improvements.”

The agenda item was brought forward by the three council members who have publicly said they are opposed to airport “expansion” – Fourth District Councilman Patrick O’Donnell, Seventh District Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga and Gabelich. Uranga and Gabelich also make up two-thirds of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Fifth District Councilwoman and Vice Mayor Jackie Kell is the third committee member.

“What I hope to achieve with this is to create a tool that will be very easy to understand, a guideline of what the council wants to see (in an Environmental Impact Report) from the economic impact to the environmental impact,” said Gabelich, who headed the HUSHII anti-airport movement before being elected to the City Council this year. “I’ve already discovered that if an issue does not impact your district directly, it has a tendency to be overlooked. This won’t be anything more than putting the facts together as a tool for our fellow council members.”

Last October, the City Council was asked to approve the scope of airport terminal improvements so an EIR study could begin. When residents protested, claiming that the size of the terminal work would attract more airlines and therefore more flights and noise, the council decided to ask the Airport Advisory Commission to make recommendations.

That commission voted 6-3 last month to accept staff recommendations of up to 90,000 square feet of improvements, under the condition that two smaller alternatives also be studied. Earlier this month, the commission also said that a full health study should be part of the EIR.

Those recommendations are expected to go before the council in late October or early November, according to airport spokesperson Sharon Diggs-Jackson. Once the council sets the size of the proposed project, the process of EIR preparation and public meetings will begin again. A Notice of Preparation could be ready by January, Diggs-Jackson said, with the EIR process likely lasting through all of 2005.

Gabelich and O’Donnell already have said they would not support the staff proposal. Gabelich said she agrees that the airport needs a “facelift” but that she saw no need to quadruple the size of the terminal. O’Donnell, in an opinion piece Sunday in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, called the Airport Advisory Commission’s recommendation “irresponsible,” and said he wanted to see a smaller alternative that was more financially responsible.

“Yes, I have made up my mind that 90,000 square feet isn’t responsible,” O’Donnell said before Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m still open to conversation, but I fail to understand why what was 25,000 square feet when it was first proposed now has to be 90,000 square feet.P

“It is my job to number one, protect the city’s air ordinance, and number two, be financially responsible. This is all going to be on the public’s back. You have to remember, any airline can pull out in 30 days. Then we’ll be left holding the bag.”

Coincidentally, American Airlines announced late Tuesday it would stop flights between Long Beach and Washington, D.C., on Nov. 1. Those two slots a day now return to the city. JetBlue Airlines has first right of refusal on those slots, but officials there have not said whether they would add flights.

City officials have been trying to get terminal improvements approved for more than two years, since JetBlue made Long Beach its West Coast hub. The airport now sees 41 flights of commercial jets each day, the maximum allowed under a court-approved noise ordinance.

About 3 million passengers will use the airport this year, and officials say the terminal was built for a maximum of just more than 1 million. Temporary passenger lounges and baggage facilities are in use, and the city is leasing off-site parking for airport passengers from Boeing.

Robert Luskin, the Airport Advisory Commissioner who made the motion to endorse the staff recommendation, said that he was unhappy with the characterization of the commission’s action as irresponsible. He noted that the commission conducted 12 public meetings on the plans and studied reams of material.

“What doesn’t seem to be getting across,” Luskin said, “is that our attorneys explained that terminal improvements were not a threat to our noise ordinance. Not doing anything, not accommodating the passengers legally allowed, now that’s something that will threaten the ordinance.”

Later in the evening Tuesday, the council postponed a decision whether to send a contract out for bid to build a more permanent canopy over the north baggage area. Uranga said she wanted more information.