The first scheduled jetBlue flight to Florida took off from Green Airport Thursday afternoon, and officials here hope the airline’s presence will cause passenger counts to take off as well.
“We’ve been working on this a long time. It’s a shot in the arm that Rhode Island needs to get going,” Dr. Kathleen Hittner, chair of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation board, said as a jetBlue Airbus A 320, with American and Rhode Island flags streaming from open cockpit windows, pulled up to the jet way. The full plane was greeted by passengers waiting to board it for the return flight and just about every Rhode Island broadcast media news team, airport employees and a number of local officials, including Mayor Scott Avedisian and Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, whose ward takes in most of the airport.
It was a welcome such as jetBlue has never seen. Certainly, there have been celebrations when the airline, known for its low rates and quality service, enters a market, bringing along expectations of greater service and more business, but this was unique to Rhode Island. It included a water cannon salute from one of the airport’s fire trucks and clam chowder, stuffies, clams casino and clam cakes for those at the gate. The Hendricken Jazz Combo played.
Sisters Bonnie Craven and Gail Yount, passengers who waved pompoms and sung with the music as they emerged from the jet way, were thrilled with all the excitement. They were treated to a continental breakfast, goodie bags and all the snacks they could eat for their trip. They reveled in the low price introductory fares and the free live TV aboard.
“I like to come to Providence. I like the way they treat you,” said Gail.
“I live in Florida by my heart is here,” she confessed.
First officer Patricia Socha signed up to be the co-pilot aboard the inaugural flight. She grew up in the Kent Heights section of East Providence and was looking forward to connecting with her mother, Elizabeth Socha, and her sister, Cathy Michael, who, like others greeting the flight, were given passes and security clearances to be at the gate. While growing up here, Socha said she met Gov. Lincoln Chafee while riding horses at Goddard State Park. It was a memory the two shared during the speaking portion of the program. She said the state “is close to my heart” and that it has the small town feel of “people care about each other.”
Avedisian said he was “thrilled” with the arrival of jetBlue at Green, adding that it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for two people: Governor Chafee and RIAC vice president Patty Goldstein. He said the governor loaded up a bus to bring key Rhode Islanders to meet with the company’s CEO, David Barger, in New York and Goldstein, who wholeheartedly sustained the effort to get the airline to come to Rhode Island.
“She never stopped believing,” he said.
Joanna Geraghty, the airline’s executive vice president and chief people officer, couldn’t help but remark on the hoopla over jetBlue. She said the state is the airline’s “diamond destination” – its 75th – and the seventh New England airport served by the company. The airline offers two daily flights to Orlando and one to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood from Green.
Hittner would like to see more, and she made that point when she took the podium. She said jetBlue has faith in Rhode Island and it is now up to us to fill the flights, so that they and other carriers serving Green will increase flights and destinations. She urged people to tell their families about jetBlue and “let’s use that to advance the economy of Rhode Island.”
“The more you fly, the more flights we’ll add,” she promised.
jetBlue also used the inaugural flight to demonstrate its commitment to community. Dressed in blue T-shirts was a team of 30 people from Hasbro who were flown to Orlando in support of Give Kids The World Village, a Florida non-profit resort that fulfills the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses. Tickets were also provided for two families who had been granted wishes from the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
jetBlue’s service means 22 new jobs at Green. Its operation is not seen as immediately reversing the downward trend in passenger traffic at Green, a phenomena that has been ongoing since 9/11 and has been more pronounced since the recession. But, as interim RIAC president and CEO Peter Frazier points out, with the addition of airlines, and with the upcoming extension of the airport’s main runway, Green is well positioned for when the economy rebounds.