March 16--Long Beach Airport Director Mario Rodriguez likes to tell the story about the couple that flew out of the airport in early December and returned mid-month after the new passenger concourse opened.
"I think we're in the wrong place," the woman told her husband, gaping at the new surroundings.
Gone were the 45 trailers that for years served as the passenger waiting and security areas. In their place, a sleek new concourse with a palm-lined outdoor courtyard, sushi counter and an iPad bar greeted travelers.
Click here to watch a video tour of Long Beach Airport's new look.
The 35,000-square-foot concourse is the capstone of a $139 million expansion and rehabilitation project at Long Beach Airport, which handled 3.2 million passengers last year.
"This is so gorgeous," said Gail Krause, 54, who was flying to Las Vegas with her husband this week. "The last time we flew out of here it was so, uh, temporary."
Ten years in the making, the new, improved Long Beach Airport, has arrived.
Rodriguez, a 25-year airport veteran, said he had one goal in mind for the $45 million concourse project -- to give travelers the best possible experience within the confines of a municipal airport.
"I didn't want to build a Taj Mahal," said Rodriguez, who has worked at major airports from Miami to Kuwait to Hong Kong. "I wanted to change how you travel."
That meant less emphasis than bigger airports on volume -- moving as many people through as possible -- and more concentration on the human level by making it as easy and convenient as possible to get from curb to air carrier, while providing a few amenities along the way.
Passengers can now check in, clear security and go directly to their planes without ever entering the historic terminal. A video projection called Ava (for Audio Visual Assistant) -- the first outside New York and Boston -- welcomes passengers in English and Spanish, instructing them about the security process. Coveted plug-ins for electronics, which travelers vie for at every airport, are now everywhere.
Then there's the food. The airport chose local eateries for its food service. Visitors can select from Long Beach favorites like McKenna's by the Bay (called McKenna's on the Fly), Taco Beach Cantina and George's Greek Cafe and eat on site or take their food to eat on the plane. The 4th Street Vine wine bar boasts a large selection of wines and tapas, which travelers can enjoy next to an outdoor fire pit. Rodriguez said it's the only fire pit he knows of at an airport. All of them are within the secure area of the terminal.
Security has been streamlined to the point that the average wait is four minutes -- maybe seven minutes at peak periods. That poses a problem.
"People think they can arrive 20 minutes before their flight boards," Rodriguez said. "We'd like them to come a little earlier and maybe have lunch."
A long journey
For years, many local travelers valued the circa 1940 airport, variously described as cute and vintage, because they did not have to battle the crowds and traffic at larger facilities such as Los Angeles International Airport. But that convenience came at a price.
"If you have more than an hour wait, this becomes the unforgettable layover at the 'trailer park' airport," wrote one commenter on Yelp.
The airport expansion faced opposition from people living in nearby homes before the city finally began construction of the new concourse in 2010, just as airlines were consolidating and cutting back flights.
There was also the question of cost. Moody's, the credit rating agency, rated the airport's bonds A2 in its most recent evaluation in 2010. That placed the bonds in the upper medium rating range and indicated a low credit risk.
The report said one potential negative was Long Beach's reliance on JetBlue Airways, which made up 78 percent of all flights. Alaska Airlines, Delta Airlines and US Airways are the other carriers.