O'Hare Diversion Could Land JetBlue at Gary, Ind., Airport

Oct. 10, 2006
JetBlue CEO David Neeleman visited the Gary airport as part of the airline's quest to tap into the Chicago ma.

Chicago International Airport stands ready, willing and able to land JetBlue Airways if plans for the low-cost carrier to fly into Chicago's O'Hare airport fall flat.

"It is our intention to go after them (JetBlue) again and again," Gary's airport director, Chris Curry, said Thursday. "We're convenient. It will work. It's just a matter of convincing them it will work."

JetBlue CEO David Neeleman visited the Gary airport as part of the airline's quest to tap into the Chicago market, Gary airport officials told the Northwest Indiana Forum earlier this year.

Now, New York-based JetBlue has asked the FAA to clear it for eight landing slots at O'Hare, signaling its clear intention to enter one of the nation's largest airline markets.

But the move is facing opposition from United Airlines, which had to cut flight schedules at O'Hare two years ago because of restrictions imposed by the FAA aimed at easing congestion.

Chicago is the most requested destination among JetBlue customers, and "O'Hare is absolutely No. 1 on our wish list," JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said Thursday.

"But saying that, if we needed a plan B, we would consider other options, and the Chicago area has quite a few options," Dervin said. "Some of those would be Gary, Rockford and even Milwaukee."

The Federal Aviation Administration has opened a public comment period on JetBlue's application for eight landing authorizations per day at O'Hare, according to FAA spokesman Hank Price.

The FAA's main concern in reviewing such applications is safety, Price said. Airport capacity issues are also considered.

United Airlines would welcome more competition at O'Hare but feels JetBlue is taking advantage of a loophole in its current application for the slots, according to United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy.

United filed its objections with the FAA on Wednesday.

JetBlue, launched six years ago by Neeleman, has sought to create a unique brand identity among low-cost carriers by offering passenger amenities such as seat-back television with 36 channels and wines selected by the airline's own sommelier.

This week, JetBlue added Columbus, Ohio, as its 47th destination. Nonstop, one-way tickets to New York and Boston range between $89 and $199.

JetBlue is one of a number of airlines that have shown interest in the Gary airport in recent years. The airport lost all commercial service last January, when Hooters Air flew its last flight out to Florida.

Airport officials hope a three-year project to expand Gary's main runway will help it land more airlines. Nonetheless, it remains capable of landing airliners right now, Curry said. Those would include JetBlue's fleet of EMBRAER 190s and Airbus A320s.

"They would bring a good brand to the airport," Curry said. "They are a fantastic airline."

Curry said if JetBlue does not succeed in getting FAA landing authorization at O'Hare, it is expected to "attack" the Chicago market from the perimeter.

Gary's main runway, at 7,000 feet, is longer than the longest runway at Midway Airport, which would be another option for Jet Blue. Once Gary completes its expansion project, its main runway will be 8,900 feet long.

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