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(NECN: Peter Howe, Providence/Warwick, R.I.) - It was a shot of sunshine for a state – and an airport – hungry for good news: JetBlue Airways Corp. on Wednesday unveiled plans for new daily flights from T. F. Green Airport in Rhode Island to Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale.
It was a dazzling tableau as JetBlue CEO Dave Barger joined Governor Lincoln D. Chafee on the gleaming south façade of the white-marble State House, unfurling a banner welcoming JetBlue to Providence as music thumped and Rhode Island sports mascots wandered around the grounds.
JetBlue’s arrival, which had been in negotiations for months, came as T.F. Green traffic has plunged from 5.7 million passengers per year in 2005 to fewer than 3.9 million last year, a more than 30 percent reduction, according to state Airport Corporation data. Key factors driving that loss: the end of the Big Dig in Boston has made Logan International Airport far easier for people south of Boston to reach, reducing demand for Green as an alternative, and since arriving at Logan in 2009 Southwest Airlines has shifted much of its service there from Providence (and Manchester, N.H., as well). American Airlines bailed out of Providence entirely in 2008.
Barger indicated the one daily Fort Lauderdale round trip and twice daily Orlando roundtrips will be "connecting into the Caribbean and across our route system. We're very, very, very excited about the future." Barger indicated that this may just be the start. "We tend to go into a city with the idea of expansion and growth … The governor and mayor and others, they've talked about additional service, whether it's into New York or out to the West Coast, whether it's direct into the Caribbean."
Passengers at Green raved about having a new choice – one they hope may push down fares.
"It’s nice to have options in the area ," said Al Pjura of Waterford, Conn.
Jim Marszalek of Coventry, R.I., who also has a home in Fort Myers and hopes JetBlue will add flights there from Providence, said, "Hopefully the price is competitive with the others or better than the others and would make it great."
John Corvello of Seekonk, Mass., said having JetBlue join the mix of carrier at Green is "going to be a good thing, absolutely. More choices to choose from, that means competition, that means better ticket prices."
In honor of Providence being JetBlue’s 75th destination, the airline plans to offer $75-per-leg round trips from Green to the Florida cities for the first two weeks of the service, followed by what Barger promises will be market-competitive fares after that.
"At the end of the day, competition is good for an airport," Barger said. "It drives people using the airport."
After years of controversy, T.F. Green officials are pushing ahead with plans for a $147 million runway extension by 2015, which they hope will make it more feasible and economical for airlines to consider offering non-stops from there to the West Coast or even Europe or Cape Verde or the Azores, countries to which many people in the region have family and ancestral ties. Today, many jetliners can’t safely take off from Green with a full load of fuel to reach a destination 3,000 miles away because of the short runways, or have to leave seats empty to stay under safe weight limits.
While announcing the Providence service, Barger was asked about pervasive rumors JetBlue may offer service out of Worcester Regional Airport in Massachusetts.
"I’ve visited Worcester, I plan to go back to Worcester, we're interested in Worcester as well, so this is the same idea: People like their local airports," he said.
But Barger also said that "we're looking at 50 cities today – I kid you not - in terms of North America, Central America, the Caribbean, South America," and it was hard to tell just how high a priority Worcester would be, especially given that JetBlue will now offer service from Logan, Providence and Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., - all airports that are fairly easy enough for people in Worcester County to reach.
With videographer Bob Ricci.