JetBlue Says Ontario Int'l Airport Doesn't Fit Into Expansion Plans

Mar. 9--After an extended courtship, Inland Southern California is out of JetBlue Airways' immediate expansion plans.

Ontario International Airport officials wooed the airline for several years, hoping to draw additional flights and new destinations as the JetBlue made decisions on how to use a fleet of new aircraft.

However, rather than add more flights, Dave Ulmer, JetBlue's vice president of planning, said Ontario struggled to support even a second daily flight to New York's Kennedy Airport once the peak summer travel season ended. Empty seats create big problems for airlines in an era of high fuel costs.

Instead, JetBlue announced a slate of new flights connecting Southern California to destinations around the country via its Long Beach hub and new service from Burbank. Ulmer said JetBlue has no Southern California growth plans beyond those two airports.

For Ontario travelers, the decision takes away a promising opportunity to reach new cities from the Inland airport. JetBlue CEO David Neeleman had previously pegged Ontario as the company's likely expansion airport in Southern California.

Ulmer said the carrier won't write Ontario entirely out of its future plans.

"A lot of population is moving toward the Ontario airport for whom it will be the closest and most convenient," said Ulmer. "That's only going to keep growing."

The airline posted a $42.4 million loss in the last quarter of 2005, marking its first loss since it became a pubic company in 2002. JetBlue said it expects to lose money this quarter and all of 2006. In February, the airline said it would raise prices.

Mark Thorpe, director of air service marketing for Ontario International Airport, said he still sees JetBlue as a possible source of growth, although not before late 2007.

Thorpe said the airport is fundamentally strong, having posted record -- passenger levels in each of the past two years despite little new service. This year began strongly once again, and new flights to Mexico plus the return of service to San Francisco and Hawaii in the past few months should herald another growth year, Thorpe said.

Thorpe said JetBlue's decision shouldn't be construed as an indicator of the airport's growth prospects in general. Other carriers have expanded service or are in talks to do so, Thorpe said.

Ulmer said the Inland airport is price sensitive, meaning passengers would likely stay away if fares increased. He said JetBlue couldn't raise fares to cover high fuel prices and the extra expense of operating in Ontario, which ranks among the most expensive airports in the region.

JetBlue recently scaled back to its one red-eye to New York while leaving open the possibility that the short-lived daytime flight would return on a seasonal basis. Ulmer said the airline has no plans to reinstate the second flight at Ontario or add other destinations.

Ulmer also said the new aircraft -- a fleet of midsized, Brazilian-built Embraer 190 planes -- don't make financial sense in Ontario. If used as shuttle flights through Ontario, the planes would put JetBlue in direct competition with Southwest Airlines' specialty. Ulmer said the airline isn't built to compete with Southwest on those routes.