As Governor Lincoln Chafee said yesterday in the broiling sun on the south steps of the State House, “this is hot news.”
He was right. It was hot, but it wasn’t exactly breaking news.
For months, state and airport officials, and even JetBlue’s President and CEO Dave Barger, have talked about bringing service to Green Airport. That news was confirmed yesterday at an event that pulled out all the stops including, appropriately, music by A Room Full of Blues, mascots from the state’s colleges and universities, a lineup of JetBlue employees who live in Rhode Island and, much to the relief of everyone, free Del’s frozen lemonade (including the apropos blueberry variety). The one thing missing was a flyover by one of the airline’s 180 planes.
But the planes will be here starting Nov. 29 when JetBlue initiates twice-daily nonstop service to Orlando International Airport and one daily flight to Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport in Florida. Barger announced special one-way fares of $75 for travel between Nov. 29 and Dec. 12, 2012. The deal expires on Aug. 1.
“We’re very excited about the news here today,” said Chafee. “We worked hard to make this day happen.”
Chafee recounted how he, former CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation Kevin Dillon, Mayor Scott Avedisian and several others hopped into a van and journeyed to Queens, N.Y. to make their pitch to Barger.
“He listened to us, and investigated what we had to say, and now we’re here today,” said Chafee.
Barger said it was the enthusiasm of those who made the pitch that served as the tipping point in JetBlue’s decision to come to Providence.
“It was the personalized armada of people,” he said. “You need that commitment to community. The networking that takes place makes a big difference.”
Dr. Kathleen Hittner, chair of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, left no doubt as to what RIAC and the state need to do to welcome the JetBlue team.
She said the airline’s decision lives up to the adage that “good things come to those who wait.” Yet, she was quick to add that the “work is just beginning.” She said it is up to RIAC to ensure that those using JetBlue get fantastic service and she urged Rhode Islanders to buy tickets.
“Start booking those flights,” she said, “let’s fill those planes.” When the planes are filled, Hittner predicted, JetBlue would increase service.
Whether JetBlue is a game-changer for Green, which has watched a steady decline of passengers from a high of 5 million more than four years ago, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, House Speaker Gordon Fox called the announcement a “second renaissance” for the airport, the first being the opening of the terminal and the initiation of discount service by Southwest Airlines.
“It is about building commerce,” Fox said from a podium on the marble steps of the State House. In front of the assembly of dignitaries with a backdrop of the State House and a blue banner welcoming the airlines was a smattering of brave spectators. There was a far bigger gathering in the shade of the nearby trees where it was easily 15 degrees cooler.
Fox said the General Assembly authorized $174 million in bonds to expand the airport in reference to projects to extend the main runway to 8,700 feet and increase the safety areas to the shorter runway. Asked about the financing after the JetBlue announcement, Fox said RIAC is seeking 75 percent federal funding of the projects. And even should the federal funding fall short, and should the projects turn out to be more costly than projected, Fox said RIAC and the state “need to find a way to do it [the longer runway].”
Fox also talked about the need to find a successor to Kevin Dillon, who started in his new job as president and CEO of the Connecticut Airport Authority this week. Dillon orchestrated the process of gaining FAA approval of the longer runway and then an agreement with the council to drop litigation challenging that decision.
“It’s important to get some real leadership back there,” he said. Hittner said work of a selection committee started that morning. She also said that two gates have already been designated for JetBlue operations.
Barger talked of the full court press made by the Rhode Island business community led by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, RIAC and state officials to get JetBlue to Rhode Island. Delegations visited him in August of last year and January this year. He mentioned the silver horseshoe given him by Governor Chafee and in a remarkable display of local trivia called on the team mascots, being sure to mention Paws from the Pawtucket Red Sox.
Barger presented Chafee with a model of a JetBlue plane, and in turn, Chafee presented Barger with a Rhode Island flag.
“We’re very, very, very excited about the future,” said Barger. “We’re delighted to be a part of the community.”
Barger said the Providence location will create 22 direct jobs, as well as other indirect positions.
As Rhode Island will become the airline’s 75th city to serve, Barger called the state the airline’s “diamond destination.”
It was a phrase Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson was pleased to hear. She favors making Warwick and the state a destination rather than simply a place to pass through.
Barger also announced the company will offer 50 complimentary seats on its first Orlando trip from T.F. Green to volunteers who will journey to Give Kids the World, a 70-acre “storybook” resort for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. JetBlue will also donate a $10,000 check to FirstBook, which will provide free schoolbooks to local schoolchildren in need.
According to a release issued by the airlines, JetBlue is New York’s Hometown Airline™ with other focus cities in Boston, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Los Angeles, San Juan and Orlando. Known for its award-winning service and free TV as much as its low fares, JetBlue offers the most legroom in coach of any U.S. airline (based on average fleet-wide seat pitch), as well as super-spacious Even More Space seats. JetBlue is also America's first and only airline to offer its own Customer Bill of Rights, with meaningful and specific compensation for customers inconvenienced by service disruptions within JetBlue's control. Visit www.jetblue.com/promise for details. JetBlue serves 71 cities with 800 daily flights and plans to launch service to Cartagena, Colombia; Samaná, Dominican Republic; and Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands this November, subject to receipt of government approval. With JetBlue, all seats are assigned, all fares are one-way and an overnight stay is never required.