Delta Air Lines yesterday announced a major expansion of service at Kennedy Airport, hoping to connect passengers to its international flights, where competition with low-cost carriers such as JetBlue Airways does not yet exist.
Atlanta-based Delta, the nation's third-largest airline, said in a teleconference that it will add 46 daily flights at Kennedy between June and September. Delta said it will begin service to Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany in New York state; Hartford, Conn.; and Philadelphia on the East Coast; and San Diego, all primarily business cities and some served by JetBlue.
"We're building a hub here," Jim Whitehurst, Delta's chief operating officer, said in the teleconference with reporters. "One of the decisions we had to make is if we were going to compete in New York. The short answer is yes."
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. While Whitehurst said Kennedy will "absolutely" become one of Delta's hubs, he denied the airline had motives other than to bring passengers to its international flights.
"Obviously there is some overlap," with JetBlue, Whitehurst said. "But most of it [Delta's plan] is not competitive" with the New York airline. "At JFK, we've historically had limited presence for passengers to connect to international flights."
Jenny Dervin, a JetBlue spokeswoman, stressed that JetBlue's home airport and its hub is Kennedy. JetBlue is the largest carrier at Kennedy. Dervin said the airline is not likely to be affected by Delta's move.
"We have a different strategy," Dervin said. "We're going to stick to our strategy. Our customers tell us it works."
JetBlue and Delta have been fierce competitors for years along the lucrative East Coast routes.
Pasquale DiFulco, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the metropolitan area's three major airports, hailed the Delta announcement as a plus for passengers.
"Anytime you offer new service it ramps up new competition," DiFulco said. "The consumer benefits from that."
Delta, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September, is the third-largest carrier at Kennedy. (American is No. 2.) The carrier employs more than 4,240 people at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports.
Delta has been expanding its international service, where it can escape the stiff competition from low-cost carriers, which do not fly overseas.
Most of Delta's new flights will be provided by the carrier's Comair unit and Freedom Airlines, a unit of Mesa Air Group Inc. Comair and Freedom will be using 50-seat jets and turboprop planes, Delta said. The airline also said it will invest more than $10 million in renovations to its Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 facilities at Kennedy.
Alan Bender, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said he did not believe Delta's move meant the airline was "declaring war" on JetBlue. "I believe they did it because they are pinning their future on international flights," Bender said.
Meanwhile, Delta faces labor troubles. Even as Delta was announcing its plans, the airline's pilots picketed outside a Delta terminal at LaGuardia, protesting the status of negotiations over long-term pay cuts.
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