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Long Beach lawmakers kill proposal to add international flights to city's commercial airport

Long Beach lawmakers kill proposal to add international flights to city's commercial airport
––––Passengers arrive at Long Beach Airport, where JetBlue, the facility's main carrier, had sought to add flights to Latin America. (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)

After almost two years of study and discussion, Long Beach lawmakers on Tuesday night killed a proposal to add international flights to Latin America at the city's commercial airport.

Following several hours of public comment, the City Council voted 8 to 1 against the idea, which was initiated in 2015 when JetBlue Airways, the airport's biggest carrier, requested a study to determine if international flights were feasible at Long Beach Airport.

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The vote halted a proposal to build a federal inspection station, which would have provided customs and immigration services for international travelers.

Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, whose district includes the airport and surrounding neighborhoods, stopped any future work on the proposal by making a motion to shelve a staff recommendation to move forward with the inspection station.

Mungo said the federal facility, estimated to cost $10 million to $21 million, would divert funds away from other airport projects, and she did not believe the economic benefits outweighed the impact on residents.

Councilwoman Suzie Price seconded the motion, saying that many residents have expressed concerns and fear about the adverse effects of adding international flights.

Critics of the plan contend the proposal would lead to more traffic, air pollution, a drop in property values and pressure to lift the city's restrictive noise limits. Before the council voted, scores of people spoke out against the flights during more than two hours of public testimony.

"We have a wonderful airport in Long Beach," said Councilman Roberto Uranga, who voted for Mungo's motion. "Having a customs facility, however, just did not add up economically. Not pursuing a federal inspection facility offers other opportunities to strengthen the airport and continue to make it our economic engine."

Long Beach Airport handles about 3 million passengers a year and offers only domestic flights. It operates under a noise ordinance that allows about 50 commercial flights per day.

JetBlue, which is based in New York, has been interested in flying to vacation spots in Mexico and other Latin American destinations.

Rob Land, an associate general counsel and senior vice president of government affairs at JetBlue, said airline officials are "profoundly disappointed" after years of delay and a city study that validated the safety, security and economic benefits of adding international flights.

"JetBlue will evaluate its future plans for Long Beach, the Greater Los Angeles area and California," Land said.

The demand for international flights in Southern California has grown 30% from 2010 to 2015, according to a $347,000 feasibility study by Pasadena-based Jacobs Engineering.

Researchers concluded that the demand is strong enough to convert up to eight domestic flights from Long Beach Airport to international flights within five years.

The Jacobs study stated that the federal facility, projected to cost $17 million to $21 million, could be paid for by JetBlue, other airlines that would use it, and fees collected from international passengers. Airport officials estimated that a 15,000-square-foot facility would cost about $10 million.

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