Six weeks after the demise of Independence Air, a new discount airline is coming to town.
Starting May 23, JetBlue Airways will offer four round-trip flights a day between Portland and JFK Airport in New York, where the airline offers connections to 30 of its 34 other cities as well as an array of international and domestic flights on other carriers.
Flights will cost between $59 and $129 each way, with discounts of $5 for booking online.
Todd Burke, a spokesman for the airline, said those fares aren't new service specials, and added that $129 will represent a true walk-up fare, for the passenger who buys the day of the flight.
By contrast, according to the Delta Airlines Web site, it would cost $499 to fly from Portland to LaGuardia Airport in New York if the ticket had been booked Wednesday for a flight today.
"All I can say is, `Yea!' It's fabulous," said Jeff Monroe, the director of the city's Department of Ports and Transportation and one of the city and state officials involved in a long courtship of JetBlue.
Monroe said six-year-old JetBlue offers a longer track record than Independence Air, which was a startup, and a more substantial route system. Independence Air was primarily an East Coast airline that only began flying to the West Coast a few months before it filed for bankruptcy last fall and stopped flying altogether in early January.
JetBlue flies to 13 cities in the West, along with five in Florida, four in the Caribbean, and one each in the Bahamas and Bermuda, as well as several in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. Burke said the airline also has an application pending to fly from JFK to Cancun, Mexico, and expects to announce six more cities that it will provide service to this year.
"They're a lot more stable operation than Independence Air was and the option of having an international airport that we're tied into is great - and they have a network that heads south and west," Monroe said. "That was the limitation that Independence Air had."
Monroe also said he was surprised to learn that all eight flights - four from Portland to JFK and four in the opposite direction - will be on Airbus A320 jets, which carry 156 passengers. JetBlue's other option was to use Embraer 190 regional jets, with 100 seats.
"Four (round-trip flights) is one of the larger new-city launches we've had in terms of number of flights," Burke said. "Portland has been on our screen for a long time."
JetBlue has been on the radar of city transportation officials an equally long time, but the urgency picked up after Independence Air went under.
For the past few months, other airlines have been cutting back either on the number of flights they offer or the size of the aircraft they use - or both - and fares have been inching up. The lack of a discount carrier is one factor in that trend, officials said.
Monroe and Jeff Schultes, the airport manager, have been concerned that fares would spike as the number of seats declined.
Getting JetBlue to fly here makes that less likely. The airline will increase the daily number of seats available by 20 percent, and its low fares will force other airlines to keep their rates lower to compete, officials said.
For Portland, it also means luring back to the jetport some passengers who have been going to other airports in search of lower fares.
"We do know there's a tremendous amount of people who go to Manchester and Boston, and I think with JetBlue we can get those passengers back," Schultes said. "This is a premier carrier."
Monroe said the city offered JetBlue a standard package of financial assistance, including helping with advertising costs and reduced airport fees. He said other airlines have the same offer available, including existing carriers who offer flights to new cities.
Monroe said he couldn't put a dollar value on the assistance because JetBlue hasn't said how much aid, if any, it will seek.
He said the state helped cement the deal by offering a portion of aviation fuel tax revenue for promotion and advertising.
Gov. John Baldacci issued a statement saying JetBlue's connection to New York "opens the door even wider for business and tourism in this state to connect with Europe."
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:
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