Demand for international flights is on the rise in Southern California but neighbors of the Long Beach Airport are fighting a plan to bring flights from Mexico and Latin America to the regional airfield.
For nearly two hours, critics of the plan told an airport advisory panel Thursday night that they feared the addition of international flights would lead to more traffic, air pollution, a drop in property values and pressure to lift the city's restrictive noise limits.
"There is no guarantee that this won't expand unbelievably," said Mike Rodsater, a 30-year resident of Long Beach, at a meeting attended by about 70 residents.
The opponents spoke at the first public hearing held on a feasibility study to build a facility to screen international travelers and their luggage.
The demand for international flights in Southern California has grown by 30% from 2010 to 2015, according to the feasibility study by Pasadena-based Jacobs Engineering.
The demand is strong enough to convert up to eight domestic flights from Long Beach Airport to international flights within five years, the study said.
If the city of Long Beach agrees to add international flights, it will join
Seth Kaplan, managing partner for the trade publication Airline Weekly, said Long Beach Airport can even try to market itself as a hassle-free alternative to Los Angeles International Airport for international flights.
"There is plenty of demand from the L.A. Basin down to Mexico, and Long Beach has a great facility," he said.
Long Beach Airport currently flies only to domestic destinations. It operates under a noise ordinance that allows about 50 commercial flights per day, and takeoffs and landings can happen only from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Violators of the limits face stiff fines from the city.
The airport's biggest carrier, JetBlue Airways, requested the study on the feasibility of adding international flights. The New York-based carrier is interested in flying to vacation spots in Mexico and other Latin America destinations.
The $347,000 feasibility study found that the noise ordinance does not impose restrictions on the origin or destination of flights to the airport and that serving international destinations would create 1,400 new jobs and generate $186 million in spending in the city each year.
The Jacobs study said the screening facility, projected to cost $17 million to $21 million, could be paid for by JetBlue and other airlines that use it, along with passenger fees collected from international travelers.
But neighbors of the airport blasted the report, saying it didn't address the additional traffic generated by the foreign tourists. They also worried that the new facility would prompt airlines to file a lawsuit to challenge the city's noise ordinance so they could add more flights.
"Once this starts, who's to say when the growth would end," Long Beach resident Nancy Lopez told the appointed panel.
Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais told the gathering that adding the international flights and building the new screening facility does not increase or decrease the likelihood of an airline filing a lawsuit to challenge the city's noise restrictions.
In the crowded suburbs of Los Angeles, most airport expansion or improvement projects draw strong opposition.
Even a plan to replace an existing terminal at Long Beach Airport in 2012 drew strong opposition, including a petition signed by hundreds of opponents.
At Hollywood Burbank Airport, a plan to replace its 1930s-era terminal has been the subject of strong debate for decades in the San Fernando Valley city.
Another longtime Long Beach resident, Terri Pfost, said airport travelers have been parking on her street and getting an Uber ride to the airport.
"I don't think our neighborhood should be remote airport parking," she said.
The only supporters of the proposal at the meeting were two JetBlue pilots who live in Long Beach.
Pilot Raghib Tauqir said jobs created by the airport help support Long Beach businesses such as grocery stores, auto mechanics and movie theaters. He added that Long Beach residents could also take international flights from the airport to visit family abroad.
"It's for friends and family," he said. "It's not just tourists."
The proposal to add international flights will be discussed next at the city's Economic Development Commission on Oct. 25 before it is presented to the Long Beach City Council on Nov. 15.