JetBlue Airways could join AirTran at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport by this time next year as part of an industry change that has low-cost carriers taking the lead in domestic expansion, an airport official said.
The low-cost JetBlue, which recently bought 100 new, mid-sized Embraer jets, is poised to enter mid-sized markets with smaller, more fuel-efficient planes, according to a JetBlue spokesman. But he would not confirm that the airline is coming to the Sarasota-Bradenton airport.
Yet airport officials insist that JetBlue will be flying out of the airport. "It's a matter of when, not a matter of if," airport President and CEO Fred Piccolo told the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport Advisory Commission on Wednesday.
Since 2000, network carriers like Delta, United, USAirways and American Airlines have reduced domestic capacity by 14.3 percent while low-cost carriers have increased capacity by 40.5 percent, according to the FAA's aerospace forecast.
JetBlue hopes to capitalize on the shake-up as larger carriers redistribute flights and focus on international business.
As it acquires new aircraft, the New York-based JetBlue is looking at small to mid-sized markets that are relatively untapped in terms of low-cost and non-stop service, said Bryan Baldwin, JetBlue spokesman.
SRQ officials have pursued JetBlue aggressively since the airline was born, long before AirTran inaugurated service at the airport a year ago.
"JetBlue is very high on our radar scope," Piccolo told Manatee and Sarasota County commissioners, business and arts leaders. "We have a decent shot of getting them within the year."
AirTran's arrival changed everything for SRQ, increasing visibility and making the airport more attractive to other carriers.
"They broke that log-jam of low-cost carriers," Piccolo said. "We get a lot of airlines that now ask us for information. That didn't happen before."
But AirTran didn't come cheap.
In an effort to attract a $1.5 million grant from U.S. Department of Transportation, Manatee and Sarasota counties each kicked in $250,000 toward marketing funds for AirTran, matched by SRQ. Manatee County's share came from tourist tax dollars. The grant was secured in August 2004, with $900,000 of it reimbursed to AirTran by Sept. 30.
Piccolo said he doubts negotiations with JetBlue will carry the same price-tag.
With legacy carriers shrinking, low-cost carriers growing and only so many markets to serve, "they have to start hitting the secondary market," Piccolo said.
JetBlue has 34 new Embraers coming online next year.
"We get requests from airports all over the country," Baldwin said Wednesday. "We don't have any specific plans for SRQ right now, but we never say never. There's so many destinations out there that we'd like to serve and hope to one day. It's just a matter of carefully growing."
AirTran is credited with bringing 300,000 new passengers through Sarasota-Bradenton. Passenger traffic at the airport was up 23 percent in November, increasing 18.5 percent year-to-date.
AirTran will begin service to Detroit in February, offering competition to that destination for the first time. Northwest Airlines begins its annual seasonal service on Dec. 15.
AirTran will have nine flights and seven destinations, exceeding its initial three flight minimum commitment. The airline has signed a two-year agreement with SRQ.
Some markets didn't do as well as AirTran had hoped. Daily flights between Boston, which started Nov. 8, were cut back to a single weekly flight this week due to poor bookings.
"There's going to be some successes and some things that don't work, but overall, it's good service for a long time to come," Piccolo said.
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