Maine's Jetport Hopes JetBlue Has Magic Effect Like Southwest

Lori McGrory figures she will benefit from today's startup of service to Portland by JetBlue Airways, even if she never sets foot aboard one of the airline's planes.

McGrory, who flies to Florida to visit her parents about six times a year, said the discount carrier's new service allows her to fly less expensively from Portland, instead of traveling to Manchester, N.H., or Boston in search of low fares, even though she hasn't booked a flight on JetBlue yet.

"We're happy that JetBlue's here if it brings (the fares of) everyone else down, too," said McGrory, who lives in Falmouth.

Airport officials are happy, too, anticipating that JetBlue will do for Portland what the arrival of Southwest Airlines did for Manchester: lead to lower fares and a jump in passenger counts.

"Not only will you be able to fly JetBlue for the low fare, but the competition will be in the same ballpark," said Gregory Hughes, marketing manager for the Portland International Jetport. "JetBlue is stimulating some interesting, good things."

One good thing was announced just last week: Delta Airlines said that, starting in September, it will add four daily round trips to JFK International in New York, which is JetBlue's hub. Delta and other airlines have already cut their fares substantially to meet the challenge by the discount carrier, at least on routes where they compete directly with JetBlue.

That's proven to be true for McGrory.

McGrory said she's constantly monitoring fares because of her frequent flights to Florida, usually with her two children and husband.

For her next flight in September, she said she was quoted $317 to Fort Myers on JetBlue from Portland, $246 on Southwest from Manchester and $242 on Delta from Portland.

McGrory said fares in this market had been going up before JetBlue announced it was expanding its territory. Generally, if she can find a flight for under $300 round trip, "I jump on it," she said, but that's been rare lately.

For a trip last month, she said, it cost $450 on Southwest, but McGrory noted that was during school vacation week, so few tickets were available. A flight a few weeks earlier, McGrory said, was $317 on Southwest.

Steven W. Hewins, president of Hewins/ Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Portland, said McGrory's experience of lower fares beginning this week will be seen by others in the area.

"There's a clear reduction in fares in every market that JetBlue serves from Portland," he said.

It's not unusual for travelers to find that other carriers can beat JetBlue on some flights, Hewins said.

Major carriers have a more complex fare structure, he said, but they tend to work from the highest fare down. JetBlue and other low-cost carriers force those carriers to cut the highest fares, Hewins explained, so the discounted rates - for advance purchases or lightly traveled days, for instance - are substantially lower.

He said passengers should also take into account that JetBlue's route system is more limited than those of the "legacy carriers," such as Delta, USAirways and Continental. JetBlue currently flies to 37 cities, although it is adding four more in the next few weeks.

McGrory's low fares are probably due to the fact that Fort Myers is one of the cities that JetBlue serves, via JFK. She said the savings will allow her to fly out of Portland more often, shaving hours of driving off her trip. This winter, McGrory said, she flew from Boston twice, Manchester twice and Portland once.

Airport officials hope to use JetBlue and the lower fares to win passengers back to Portland.

After setting passenger records almost annually through the 1990s up to 2000, passenger counts plummeted in 2001 and 2002 as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As those fears were beginning to ease, a general slowdown in the economy cut into both business and leisure travel.

As the market began to recover, the airlines - particularly the major carriers that have struggled financially, including trips into bankruptcy court for many - cut back on the number of flights and on the number of seats available. Seeking to firm up fares, many went from larger aircraft, such as 150- to 200-seat Boeing or Airbus planes, to smaller regional jets, which usually carry 50 or 70 passengers.

Fewer seats and rising demand have allowed the airlines to cut back on the number of discounted seats they offer, and Portland was already a relatively high-fare market.

That hurt the airport's passenger counts, Hughes said. The jetport commissioned a study last year that found that in the Portland market area, 41 percent of air travelers flew out of Logan Airport in Boston and 16 percent flew out of Manchester. Only two out of five air travelers chose the airport closer to home.

JetBlue should help those numbers, Hughes said, even if only because of supply. JetBlue's arrival, he said, will boost the number of seats available by 20 percent.

The airline is entering the Portland market in a big way, with four daily round trips to JFK and using its Airbus models, with 156 seats, rather than its smaller 100-seat regional jets. That means the number of seats available to and from Portland jumps 20 percent from Monday to Wednesday, when JetBlue's full complement of flights takes effect.

"Overnight, they (JetBlue) are the second-largest carrier at the jetport," Hughes said.

Hewins said he was at a travel agents' convention in Florida last week and other cities were envious that Portland had managed to land JetBlue.

"It's a feather in Portland's cap," he said. Several told him, "They wished they had JetBlue in their city."

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