JetBlue leaving Columbus on Jan. 6; Airline was popular here, but profits were insufficient

JetBlue Airways will end operations in Columbus on Jan. 6, 14 months after starting service here.

The airline, which is retrenching after an aggressive period of expansion, cited lower-than-expected profitability at Port Columbus.

Nashville operations also were cut by JetBlue yesterday as it released stronger-than-expected third-quarter results. Shares gained 4.5 percent on the airline's report of a 21.9 percent increase in revenue to $765 million, and net income of $23 million compared with a loss of $500,000 in the same quarter last year.

It was just over a year ago that Port Columbus greeted JetBlue with a water-cannon salute and a visit from Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and his animal entourage. At that event last October, Hanna joked that "you can't fly to Zanesville" for the $39 one-way promotional fare the airline charged for some initial flights to New York and Boston.

That apparently was a major factor in JetBlue's undoing here. Passengers liked its service and low-fare sales, but the airline wasn't able to charge enough on average to turn a solid profit.

"We were actually seeing some decent load factors," said spokesman Bryan Baldwin, using the industry term for percentage of seats that are full. "The thing that wasn't panning out was that we weren't able to sell those seats at the prices we thought we would. I think that really only became apparent recently."

Baldwin said those who have purchased tickets for flights through Port Columbus after Jan. 6 should contact the airline. Customers will receive a refund or can choose in some cases to be re-booked on Delta, he said.

Port Columbus officials had courted JetBlue for years. The carrier has been highly sought after by airports around the country for its high customer-satisfaction rankings and ability to drive down fares.

David Whitaker, vice president of business development for the airport, admitted the news was a setback. He said the airline notified airport officials of the decision Monday afternoon.

"We're quite disappointed," Whitaker said. "No carrier has told us that they've had trouble getting response out of the market here, so we're a little surprised. Skybus, Southwest and others have all had good responses here."

Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based airline consultant, said JetBlue's move doesn't reflect on the Columbus market in general.

"It's not a negative for the airport; it's a vibrant market," he said. "There just isn't enough traffic to support service to New York and Boston alone. JetBlue is essentially a point-to-point carrier, focused on driving traffic to its hub at JFK."

JetBlue's flights increased the number of seats from Columbus into the New York and Boston markets by 50 percent or more.

But Port Columbus already has substantial service into New York from several major carriers, and JetBlue's one daily midday flight into Boston was not enough to attract business customers, industry observers said.

Boston fares declined noticeably when JetBlue came to Columbus. In July 2006 when JetBlue announced it was coming, Delta and American were charging $339 roundtrip to Boston. By October, they were matching JetBlue's introductory roundtrip fare of $78 in some cases. Though Skybus offers a nearby alternative in Portsmouth, N.H., Whitaker and Boyd said fare hikes to the Boston market could follow JetBlue's departure.

"You'll still be able to fly directly to Boston, but plan on having to call your banker in Zurich to get there," Boyd cracked.

mrose@dispatch.com

Box Story: Other options

Although JetBlue plans to end operations at Port Columbus early next year, a number of options remain for flying directly to New York or Boston, the two cities JetBlue serves. Other carriers' nonstop flights to those markets:\ New York

JFK

Delta: 4 daily flights

La Guardia

American: 4 daily flights

Delta: 4 daily flights

US Airways: 5 daily flights

Newark (N.J.)

Continental: 6 daily flights\ Boston

Logan

American: 1 daily flight

Delta: 3 daily flights

Portsmouth, N.H.

Skybus: 2 daily flights

Source: Port Columbus International Airport


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