Long Beach Looks to Jack Up Fines, Take Away Slots From Late Night Offenders (That’s You, JetB

I know not everyone here appreciates a good story from my hometown airport here in Long Beach, but there is a fight brewing that’s going to put a whole lot more pressure on JetBlue in years to come. For over 15 years, the airline has been the dominant player in Long Beach, but with Southwest coming in last year and showing interest in more slots, the airport seems to be thinking it has some leverage for the first time in a long time. It’s going to flex its muscles by toughening up on late night curfew violators and those who underutilize their slots. Want to guess who will be impacted?

The proposed changes to the noise ordinance could make it very difficult for JetBlue to keep up the status quo. These new rules would increase fines dramatically for those airlines that violate the noise ordinance, but more importantly it would also strip slots away from those carriers that become frequent violators. There is only one frequent violator, and it’s JetBlue. The airline’s slots may be at risk if this change occurs as planned next year.

Since the mid-1990s, Long Beach has had its current noise ordinance with penalties for those who violate it. The 10pm to 11pm hour is sort of a soft curfew, but violations between 11pm and 7am have been under the same fee structure for 20 years. Here’s a look at the current and proposed changes, as best I can gather. (There seems to be some discrepancy between sources on whether there are fines still currently issued for the first two violations or not.)ViolationCurrent Rolling 12 Months)Proposed (Flat 24 Month Period)1st ViolationNotice Sent, Phone Call Required$2,5002nd ViolationNotice Sent, Written Response Required$2,5003rd Violation$100$2,5004th/5th Violation$300$2,5006th-10th Violation$300$3,500 – $5,00011th-19th Violation$300$5,000 – $10,00020th Violation and Beyond$300$5,000 – $10,000 and possible loss of slots

This is, of course, a huge increase but it’s also not indicative of what all airlines pay today. JetBlue has always had a problem obeying the curfew because its East Coast hubs fall apart as soon as the weather gets ugly. Now with five daily flights to fog-prone San Francisco as well, it gets hit on both ends. And JetBlue really gets in trouble because it wants to fly redeyes to the East Coast. That means the airline has to schedule its flights to Boston, JFK, and Ft Lauderdale butting up against the 10pm curfew so that they don’t arrive too ridiculously early on the other side of the country. There’s not much room for error, but errors happen often.

Because of JetBlue’s semi-frequent flights during curfew, the city prosecutor had the option of going after the airline for breaking the law. Many years ago, the two parties entered into a consent decree where JetBlue would pay $3,000 for each of the first 6 violations per quarter and then $6,000 per violation after that, and the money would fund the city library. That consent decree was recently modified so that JetBlue will now pay a flat $6,000 for every violation, not a big change.

I reached out to the city prosecutor’s office to understand whether the consent decree means JetBlue won’t be subject to the new proposed fines from the airport, but I didn’t hear back. Technically, these come from different entities, however, so presumably the goal would be to make them both apply. This isn’t really about jacking up revenue, however. It’s about making the violations stop through higher penalties.

Take a look at this chart:

While the stats by airline haven’t been released yet through June, we do know the total number of violations in June of 2017 was 21, making for a total of 133 in the first six months of the year, a huge increase over previous years. I’ll bet July was worse. And the vast majority of those are JetBlue’s. This might not sound bad, but consider this. This doesn’t include the much greater volume of violations during the soft curfew from 10pm to 11pm, and there are only 150-151 days in the first five months of the year. The violations are pretty frequent when you think about it that way.

There is plenty of debate in Long Beach about whether a customs facility should be allowed or how much traffic there should be, but there is virtually no debate that the noise ordinance should be obeyed. There’s no doubt that JetBlue may have some unique operational issues that lead to these violations, but there are ways to mitigate them through scheduling practices if there was an interest. Somehow, that doesn’t appear to be.

I asked JetBlue’s corp comm team some questions about why things had gotten worse and what the airline was doing to fix the problem. All I got was the useless, generic statement that it has floated to other outlets blaming air traffic control and sneaking in a line supporting air traffic control privatization. It’s not worth me reprinting, so you can read it here if you want.

This statement seems insane. After the city made the mistake of shooting down the airline’s request for a customs facility, JetBlue should be mad. I wouldn’t have blamed the airline if it pulled up stakes and walked away. But if it’s going to stay, it needs to do a better job of obeying the noise ordinance so it doesn’t risk losing the supporters it has in the community. This statement doesn’t indicate any interest in proactively trying to fix the problem.

This is obviously resonating locally, because for years the mantra from the anti-airport group has been “don’t touch the noise ordinance” for fear of it being too fragile to survive alterations. But armed with precedent (John Wayne down the road made similar alterations a couple years ago) and an increase in violations, the airport thinks the time is right to actually try to update the ordinance.

The fees will certainly hurt the airline’s already questionable financial performance in Long Beach, but that’s not really what this is about. This is about Long Beach flexing its new-found muscles now that JetBlue isn’t the only game in town.

Before, threatening to take slots away from JetBlue would have resulted in empty slots. Now it would result in Southwest scooping them up. So if JetBlue wants to keep those slots, it will have to stop violating the curfew. Oh, but wait, there’s more.

There’s a kicker in this proposal that also would require increased slot utilization. Today airlines are required to use their slots a little more than half the time in order to keep them. This would change it to say slots must be utilized a least 60 percent of the time in any given month, 70 percent of the time in any given quarter, and 85 percent of the time in any full year. No more slot-squatting would be allowed. JetBlue has been guilty of that in the past.

I have no legal opinion on this, but the changes seem fair. They’re also bound to make JetBlue’s flights even less profitable (or, uh, more unprofitable), and could theoretically be the final straw. Before, a move like this would have been unthinkable since nobody else was interested in filling the void if JetBlue left. But now with Southwest hungry for more, the airport seems to be emboldened. I just hope this doesn’t backfire.

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