Passengers board a Hawaiian Airlines flight at Long Beach Airport Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

All things considered, Long Beach Airport is closing out 2021 better than expected—and officials say they’re looking forward to increased passenger volumes in the new year.

Passenger traffic bottomed out in April 2020 when travel was virtually nonexistent. Since then, the small municipal airport has rebounded slowly and will close out the year with just over 1 million boarding passengers—slightly lower than projections made at the start of the year, according to Operations and Facilities Bureau Manager Ron Reeves.

“It’s understandable with the delta variant and all of that,” Reeves said, noting that officials could not have predicted two new variants and continued strain from the pandemic.

For comparison, prior to the pandemic, the airport would record around 2 million boarding passengers, Reeves said.

Looking ahead to 2022, Reeves said staff is projecting about 1.5 million boarding passengers. While still below the previous norm, Reeves noted that the projection is a conservative estimate, adding that recent Thanksgiving and Christmas travel numbers give him reason to believe the airport could exceed expectations next year.

“Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Reeves said. “There is pent-up demand—[people] are over this. Folks are ready to move again.”

November marked the start of Southwest, the airport’s leading carrier, utilizing all of its 35 flight slots six days a week. Under the facility’s noise ordinance, the airport is limited to 53 flights per day. Southwest took over slots following JetBlue’s departure from the city.

As expected, the increased number of flights boosted passenger traffic, Reeves said.

During the week of Thanksgiving, 32,000 people boarded flights at the airport. The passenger volume was within 10% of 2019 figures for the same week, Reeves said. For the week of Christmas, about 33,000 people boarded flights, which would be close to 98% of 2019’s passenger traffic for the same week.

Passenger fees account for two-thirds of the airport’s revenue, Reeves said. Lost revenues, even though offset in part by federal relief packages, threw a cloud of uncertainty over pending upgrades to the airport.

The Phase II Terminal Area Improvements include a host of new facilities: a new ticketing building with adjoining check-baggage inspection system facility, new baggage claim, renovation of the historic terminal building into a hub for car rentals and a meet-and-greet plaza with concessions available to the public.

“This historic terminal building opened in 1941, so it’s been that long since we’ve had a new ticketing facility,” Reeves said, noting that the new facility will have numerous kiosks, touchless ticketing and other modern features. “In terms of convenience, it’s going to be unparalleled.”

Construction on ticketing and check-baggage buildings is well underway, with the facilities expected to open to travelers in the spring, Reeves said. However, the remaining projects are in limbo, and the timeline has been uncertain since the onset of the pandemic.

With passenger numbers ticking up and federal assistance, the airport is moving forward with the construction of the new baggage claim area, Reeves said. Just north of the historic terminal, the existing building has already been demolished. Construction will start early next year and is expected to be completed before the end of 2022.

The baggage claim project is budgeted at $15 million. Funding for the project received a boost with the passage of the federal infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden earlier this year. The bill included $294 million for California airports, with over $6 million allocated to Long Beach.

Airport staff are constantly reevaluating the facility’s financials to determine when the remaining projects could get underway, Reeves said. For now, there is no timeline for those projects but the books are looking good and staff is reviewing plans for the meet-and-greet plaza as the next project.

“We’re really looking forward to the future,” Reeves said, adding that he hopes to be back up to pre-pandemic levels no later than 2023, if not late 2022. “The first impression of [the city] that many people have is Long Beach Airport. Having these new facilities online and we’re looking forward to being able to serve our passengers in a way that we are proud of.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.

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