Long Beach Airport: Where Old Meets New

By Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Photos by Chris Sloan / Published October 10, 2013

Long Beach Airport completed a new, modern terminal in late 2012. The iconic airport has a rich and storied history leading up to its new lease on commercial life, and today we’ll take a look back.

9839377485_2fb95a22e1_cLong Beach Airport (LGB) was founded in 1923 by the Long Beach City Council, though at the time it was known as Long Beach Municipal Airport. Hangars and facilities were built to accommodate the navy and Army Air Corps early on. Despite the fields initial and continued military use by 1929 both Western Air Lines and Maddux Airlines had both begun service to the airport. Two runways, with lighting (which was novel at the time), were added in the mid-1930s, and the first control tower was built in 1936.

The iconic terminal and tower control was built in the early 1940s. Designers Horace Austin and Kenneth Wing give at the unique art-deco style it has today. Inside the terminal gained national attention for its mosaics and murals done by Work Project Administration-artist Grace Clements. The building was set to open on December 7th, 1941, the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked and the US was ushered into World War II.

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Fun facts: LGB has a number of firsts in aviation: The airport saw the first aerial refueling, put on as a stunt during an air-rodeo, and the beach nearby was the terminus of the first transcontinental flight in 1911. Both Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh flew into and out of LGB on a regular basis in the 20’s and 30’s.

The terminal wound up being repainted in camouflage instead and used as a garrison for troops and weapons. The building was finally opened formally in April of 1942, though the classic pastel paint job would not be re-added until 1945. It later went on expanded and refurbished several more times, including several substantial additions between ’82 and ‘86 before its latest makeover in 2012.

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united-airlines-douglas-dc-10-at-long-beach_11946The airport has also seen a number of tenants and carriers come and go over the years. The most famous was the Douglas Aircraft Company. Douglas broke ground on the plant in 1940, completing it in 1941. Initially given completely to the war effort, the company churned out thousands of airplanes including the C-47 and C-124 transport planes and even the Boeing B-17 bomber. Post-war the Douglas plants continued to grow as the company churned out DC-8s, -9s, and -10s. When Douglas folded into McDonnell Douglas MD-11s and MD-80s rolled off the lines.  In 1997 McDonnell Douglas was taken over by Boeing, and the facility continued to roll out 717s until 2006. All told, the facility pushed out over 15,000 aircraft in its 65 year run.

VIDEO EXTRA: See the empty Douglas plant today

9839373445_7f15a5babe_cBoeing continues to produce C-17 heavy lift military aircraft on site, though the company recently announced the line would close in 2014. Gulfstream, meanwhile, operates a small facility for painting and outfitting their business jets.

Turning to airline carriers, Long Beach has seen many of the ups and downs experienced by small to mid-sized airports overshadowed by a larger hub (LAX) nearby. Service began with Western and Maddux, running mail and passengers through the region. The 40s and 50s saw limited use, with nonstop service to only LA and San Diego. Western, already hubbing in LA, used the field for overflow traffic, adding jet service to Las Vegas, Oakland, and San Francisco.

The period from 1970 to the mid-1990s saw a number of carriers come and go. Low points, such as 1980, saw only one jet service carrier while the in the late ‘80s the airport saw service from Continental, Delta, TWA, and USAir. All left by 1993, leaving the airport’s commercial service virtually dead in the water.

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JetBlue welcomes passengers aboard its first flights from Long Beach on August 27, 2001

That is until JetBlue came to town. The low-cost, high quality airline saw an opportunity in Long Beach and swung hard. Entering the airport in 2001, the carrier quickly made an impression on the locals as an alternative to LAX for transcontinental travel. The airline has turned Long Beach into a prominent focus city, taking 31 of the 41 slots currently available for commercial travel (noise constraints only allow 41 flights for day) and commanding 79% of the market. Other carriers have returned including Delta, USAirways (via America West merger), and Alaska/Horizon.

The traditional water cannon salute as JetBlue inaugural flight 206 departed for JFK on August 27, 2001

The traditional water cannon salute as JetBlue inaugural flight 206 departed for JFK on August 27, 2001

The introduction and success of JetBlue is the primary impetus behind the new/renovated terminal completed last year. Widely praised by visitors as one of the nicest airports in the US, the $45 million project features such highlights as post-security outdoor areas, fire-pit lounges, and a plethora of plant life. New concessions and historical exhibits celebrating the Long Beach area provide for a better passenger experience, as do iPad stations and free WiFi.

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The terminal is also now one of a handful in the US to earn a LEED certificate for energy efficiency. Solar panels dot the roof, taking advantages of the airports 350+ days of sun per year. Low flow fixtures such as toilets and sinks reduce water usage. Energy efficient lighting and glazed windows reduce energy use even further.

9839401866_cbcb367bd8_cAdditional touches keep the new terminal in line with its roots. The original terminal remains largely unchanged from the day it was built, even though the new terminal envelopes the old one. The field also continues to have no jetbridges, with passengers walking to the aircraft in much the same way they would’ve when it first opened. Historical exhibits from models to informational boards dot the space to help share the past with those visiting in the present.

While many of the airfields from the early days of aviation have gone on to be demolished, turned into new housing projects or golf courses, Long Beach continues to stand as a testament to where aviation has come from. And with the terminal, the exciting new places it can go.

Extra: Full Photo Gallery of Long Beach Airport 2001-Present

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