Albuquerque, JetBlue Tout Mutual Benefits

April 29--It's now been a year since Albuquerque and JetBlue first hooked up, and both parties are still feeling the love.

Airline and city officials are touting JetBlue's first foray into the market -- a highly incentivized nonstop flight between Albuquerque and New York -- as a success.

From its launch April 22, 2013, through the end of March, the daily nonstop flight between the Albuquerque International Sunport and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport served a total of 69,271 passengers, according to Sunport data.

The route had its best month in July, carrying a total of 7,969 travelers for an average of 257 per day. It saw the lowest traffic in January, with 3,357 total travelers.

JetBlue serves the flight with a 150-seat Airbus 320.

"We are pleased with the performance on the New York-Albuquerque route thus far," JetBlue spokeswoman Real Hamilton-Romeo told the Journal via email.

Officials with the Sunport -- which has supported the route with incentives valued at more than $800,000 -- are even more effusive.

"I think they've absolutely been a success," Sunport spokesman Dan Jiron said.

Having suffered several years of declining passenger traffic, the Sunport cut an aggressive deal to land JetBlue, the facility's first new major carrier since 2007. As part of a two-year arrangement, the Sun-port waives JetBlue's landing fees and discounts baggage claim, ticket-counter usage and other fees by 75 percent.

Including a one-time, $200,000 expenditure to market the route -- the Sunport's only direct expense -- the value of the incentive package reached $823,363 by March.

The Sunport has billed JetBlue $315,318 during the same time stretch.

Jiron said the deal was worth it.

"We feel like (JetBlue has) been very good for the city, very good for our customers -- offering more choices, more airlines, (flights) to more destinations," he said.

The Sunport's ambitious marketing strategy also helped bring in Alaska Airlines, which Jiron said can take the same deal. Alaska begins a nonstop flight between Seattle and Albuquerque in September.

The Sunport is in a financial position to offer such programs, Jiron said, calling it the new way of doing business. Airports offer perks or discounts to get a new carrier to try the market with the hope it leads to a long-term relationship.

"There are no guarantees, no promises. Things have changed," Jiron said."But in our conversations with Jet-Blue and Alaska, they don't take moving into a new city and new market lightly."

Since the Sunport generates its own nearly $70 million annual operating budget, city general fund dollars are not used.

"It is great that in the last two years alone, we have brought two new world-class carriers into our market which connect Albuquerque to both East and West coasts, and we have been able to attract and foster these relationships without risking taxpayer dollars," Mayor Richard Berry said in a statement.

The deal required JetBlue to pay back any incentives if it halted Albuquerque service during the inaugural year, but JetBlue is now free of that obligation and has not signed a long-term lease in Albuquerque -- unlike the rest of the airlines serving the Sunport, Jiron said.

Once the incentives expire, Jiron said JetBlue will pay "some sort of premium" to operate at the Sunport without a lease, but that officials likely will work out a new pay model that makes things cost-effective for airlines like JetBlue.

But JetBlue's long-term plans for the market aren't clear.

"We will continue to monitor the (current) route's performance and demand to see what -- if any -- opportunities exist for expansion," Hamilton-Romeo said.

While it's difficult to measure the exact impact the service has had on Albuquerque, Tania Armenta of the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau said it's clearly been positive.

ACVB's staff has been able to trumpet the service to convention and meeting planners.

Copyright 2014 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.