California’s Long Beach Airport waves hello to expansion while embracing local flair

n.b. – This story first appeared in the APEX Editor’s Blog on 19 February 2013

Running a modern airport operation out of a terminal initially built roughly 70 years ago is an incredible challenge. For California’s Long Beach Airport Authority it was one that demanded a response. The airport is seeing growing passenger numbers – more than three million annually – as well as stiff competition from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, among others. Yet the infrastructure was unable to comfortably support burgeoning airline operations. At the same time, the airport authority prides itself on being able to provide a low-cost to its airlines, allowing for lower fares to keep aircraft at the airport flying full. Upgrades were needed but costs needed to be contained. Long Beach faced quite a challenge.

For airport director Mario Rodriguez the solution was one that satisfies passengers, airlines and the local community. The new terminal at Long Beach is a relatively modest size – appropriate for the passenger loads if not perhaps a bit larger than necessary for the number of daily flights the airport serves. The new terminal is beautiful, involving a number of local accents and amenities. It is focused almost entirely on the passenger, and is meant to ease the challenges of today’s air travel experience. Additionally, the new terminal has been built at a fraction of the cost that other recent terminal expansions have seen. Everyone is a winner.


Long Beach Airport 2 200x300 California’s Long Beach Airport waves hello to expansion while embracing local flair

The Southern California Beach lifestyle generally doesn’t overlap much with a traditional airport experience. For the Long Beach Airport Authority, that presented a bit of a problem, as well as the opportunity to solve it in spectacular fashion. Rather than focusing on making another terminal just like every other airport, Long Beach chose to leverage their climate and regional style. And for Southern California that means resort chic. Rodriguez describes the approach: “Nowadays with everything being so generic we figured we’d think outside the box. What you’re going to walk out into is not a miniaturized size of Chicago O’Hare… Over here, if it looks like a resort hotel and it feels like a resort hotel and tastes like a resort hotel it should. We copied it from a resort hotel.”

Think palm trees and fire pits, outdoor seating and sunshine. When the construction uncovered 1930s-era mosaics highlighting the region in the old terminal building they were preserved and restored, not destroyed to make way for the new facility. That’s the approach Long Beach is taking with its new facility and it is beautiful.

Similarly, the airport takes advantage of its 350-plus days of sunshine annually and reasonably pleasant outdoor temperatures: there are no jetbridges installed in the new terminal facility. All boarding will be done directly from the ramp area using stairs or ramps, depending on the aircraft. This is the way boarding has been done since the facility opened and, even with the opportunity to change the situation, the Long Beach Airport chose not to.

By skipping out on the jetbridges the airport was able to remove the “metal tube” syndrome as Rodriguez calls it. Having access to outdoor space during the travel process allows the Long Beach Airport to provide “a sense of place” before or after the flight, tying the passengers more closely to the city more quickly than other airports can.


How many airports have an executive chef? How many airports have a wine steward? Not many, and it is certainly rare in secondary market airports. Long Beach does, however, and its expecting that to help provide the best possible experience to passengers. Adding local dining options to the typical airport collection is a growing trend in the United States. The new Long Beach Airport has taken the trend to an extreme; in keeping with the focus on the local vibe all but one of the concessions in the airport will be a local brand.

Passengers won’t find a Starbucks at the airport; instead the local Polly’s Coffee will be served. The 4th Street Vine Bar has a wine steward on staff to help passengers choose the appropriate glass of wine to enjoy while waiting for their flight. Or passengers can take a meal at McKenna’s on the fly, an outpost of the renowned waterfront restaurant. Sweet Jill’s Bakery will have pastries and snacks available. Additional options include a local sushi bar, Mexican cantina, Greek restaurant and burger joint.


Just a few miles up Interstate 5 there is a major construction project going on at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to expand the Tom Brady International Terminal (TBIT). The TBIT project is much larger on many levels, requiring immigration facilities and capacity for much larger aircraft and passenger volumes. When complete the new TBIT will cover 2.1 million square feet of space, roughly 1 million of which is new construction. The cost of the TBIT project is currently estimated at nearly USD$2 billion, up from the initial USD$1.4 billion estimate when the work started. The TBIT project is also running behind schedule by several months. The total project at Long Beach cost just over USD$140 million, with the terminal work only USD$45 million of the total, and it was completed on time.

LAX is a huge project serving far more passengers than Long Beach on a daily basis, but what about Indianapolis? That airport opened a new terminal in 2008 to serve its approximately 7 million annual passengers at a cost of $1.1 billion, far higher than the relative costs at Long Beach. Those costs are borne directly by the airlines and concessions outlets at the airport. Indirectly that means higher costs for passengers, something that Long Beach authorities worked hard to avoid. The Airport Authority estimates that it managed to complete its renovation at a roughly 90% discount compared to other recent projects on a price-per-gate basis.

Could Long Beach have built a facility akin to Indianapolis or LAX? Almost certainly; at one point such a design was being bid out to contractors. But choosing this approach has saved a significant capital expense, allowing the airport to keep costs down for its airlines. That translates into lower fares and more, happier passengers.


Just how significant is the update to Long Beach for the airlines operating there? Perhaps the most notable factor to the airlines is that it was done in a manner that will not change their operating costs at Long Beach. Keeping costs in line is only one part of the equation. Listening to Dave Clark, director of schedule planning for main inhabitant JetBlue Airways, the new terminal has the potential to change the way Long Beach plays in the broader Los Angeles market. “Long Beach has always been a very convenient and very historic airport. You can get from the curb to the plane fast. This is a place [passengers] will want to spend time. They’ll want to eat a meal before their flight or after they arrive. I think it should expand the market share in the Los Angeles area because it is an even more pleasant experience.”


Given the focus in Long Beach on serving closer destinations the impact of the new terminal is more pronounced. As Clark sees it, “The shorter the flight, the bigger the passage through the airport is part of that as a percentage so having a really convenient airport plays in to the shorter haul [operations].” Clark also sees the new terminal as fitting well with JetBlue’s main focus in terms of passenger comfort, “JetBlue is all about bringing humanity back to air travel and we try to control the passenger experience so well in the air; to have an experience like this on the ground really helps the customer throughout the whole travel process.”


The new terminal could also change the way JetBlue operates at Long Beach. The airport will not have FIS facilities to handle international traffic, something JetBlue is interested in. But that option “has to come at the right cost; if it is cost-prohibitive it is going to undermine itself.” Mr. Rodriguez doesn’t see FIS operations coming anytime soon, but there may be other opportunities the new terminal presents for the carrier. Mr. Clark notes that the “terminal has a good chance really to alter service at the airport; some things that weren’t possible with the old facility could become possible with the new facility.” He declined to present specifics but clearly the new terminal has people thinking about new opportunities.


Perhaps the biggest challenge Long Beach faces with the airport renovation is that it is running very close to full capacity in terms of daily operations. The airport is slot-restricted due to noise regulations in the local community and those show no signs of changing anytime soon. To a person the Airport Authority and other city officials have made it clear they aren’t looking to push the noise issue. In some ways it is difficult to see a brand new facility go in to operation without efforts to further grow its use. At the same time, however, the locals are quite happy with their role as a secondary provider in the region. They want to be the best option for passengers but not the biggest.


So how did Long Beach end up in this position, providing a first-tier operation in a secondary market at a fraction of the cost? Rodriguez explains it rather matter-of-factly: “Everybody is building these wonderful airport cities. If you think an airport is a destination you should build an airport city. If you think it is a gateway you shouldn’t pass on all that cost to the passenger. It is a different philosophy what you see [in Long Beach]… The real star here is Long Beach. This is just a gateway.”


By playing on the local feel the Long Beach airport has created a more intimate environment for their passengers and managed to contain costs in the process. Long Beach is not going to be the next ‘aerotropolis’. It will not be a mega-airport serving destinations around the globe. The local authority understands its clientele and its mission. “We are concentrating on our core competence; our core competence is to serve domestic passengers and to serve them well, to make sure they are well treated,” is how Rodriguez expresses the airport’s mission. Most importantly, however, the Long Beach airport is focused on being the gateway to Long Beach, not a destination unto itself.

For the Long Beach Airport Authority the challenges came on multiple fronts. It had to keep costs down so that the airlines would be happy. It had to keep the construction profile down so that the local residents would be happy. And it had to provide a top-notch experience so that the passengers would be happy.


As far as Rodriguez is concerned the new terminal is a win with all three groups. “We wanted to build world-class but we didn’t want it to be someone else’s idea of what world-class is. The whole concept is to build world-class without that world-class price ticket. We didn’t build a Taj Mahal; Taj Mahals come with Taj Mahal prices.”

Rodriguez loves his airport and thinks that it will serve its customers well for many years particularly in its primary focus of getting passengers in and out of the airport as efficiently as possible.

That is also happens to be a beautiful facility and a comfortable place for passengers to spend time is simply an added bonus.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.