Travel professionals balked last month when Delta Air Lines announced plans to fly turboprop aircraft from Richmond to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Now Delta is reversing course - and moving up its launching date.
On July 5, Delta plans to fly twice a day to JFK on 50-seat regional jets, an official said yesterday.
This marks a turnaround from the previous plan to serve JFK with 37-seat Dash-8 turboprops, starting Sept. 5. In an article in The Times-Dispatch last month, travel agents and airline officials questioned the wisdom of using small propeller-driven planes for passengers who are accustomed to jets.
Bob Cortelyou, vice president of network planning for Delta, disclosed the new plan yesterday during an interview about the airline's service here.
"Part of it was the comments about turboprops," he said. "That's a valid response. Since Richmond is such a good market, we wanted to upgrade service."
Another factor was the competitive response from JetBlue Airways, he said. JetBlue began flying between Richmond and New York's JFK on March 31.
JetBlue, which is mostly a domestic carrier, has announced plans to form partnerships with international airlines, an arrangement that could draw passengers to JetBlue if they wanted to make connections at JFK.
"It's not unexpected," JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said of Delta's move. "We typically see this kind of competitive response."
Delta's Cortelyou stressed the importance of the Richmond market, where it was tied with US Airways as the market leader in February. Both had 27.8 percent of the passenger load.
"Richmond has been a great market for Delta," he said, noting the tie spans most of Delta's 75 years in business. "We've seen incredible demand there."
Richmond International Airport spokesman Troy Bell called it "a wise move by Delta to upgrade the equipment."
The airline also will add a 10th flight to Atlanta this summer, despite last week's vote by its pilots' union authorizing a strike.
Cortelyou declined to discuss the labor situation for the bankrupt carrier, opting instead to tout Delta's growth plans. This includes redeployment of wide-bodied jets to serve new destinations in Europe and Africa.
International service remains one of Delta's strong points, he said, as it battles two low-fare carriers serving Richmond, JetBlue and AirTran.
It helps to have loyal passengers who use frequent flier points, he noted.
"Atlanta is a gateway to America and the world," Cortelyou said. "That's the advantage we bring to Richmond that AirTran doesn't bring."
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Low-fare JetBlue and AirTran have targeted Richmond's top two destinations -- New York and Atlanta, putting them "much more in tune" with the local market than Southwest.
Delta's announcement stirred speculation in the industry as to whether the carrier is making the move to increase its competitive position against Forest Hills-based JetBlue.
JetBlue Airways Corp. is talking with international airlines about forming partnerships to provide seamless overseas air service, including for Richmond-based travelers.
The Forest Hills-based airline has so far announced only two of the 10 destinations. It will begin service to Richmond, Va., March 31. Service to Austin, Texas, began Jan. 19.