Saturday, February 13, 2016

Our opinion: JetBlue for Tallahassee: The time is now

The way city officials see it, there’s an airline service gap between Jacksonville and New Orleans – and some Panhandle city is going to fill it.

There’s no reason Tallahassee shouldn’t be the one, or that JetBlue shouldn’t be the carrier to do it. Pensacola, Panama City and Fort Walton Beach are options, but they don’t have state government, higher education and a business community growing like ours.

It’s encouraging that the city is moving ahead aggressively and smartly in its efforts to attract the cut-rate carrier.

“It’s only a matter of time until they get into the Panhandle,” city aviation director Chris Curry said of JetBlue.

Florida State University pledged $1 million to the corporate courtship last week. There’s a publicity-generating campaign of letter writing to encourage JetBlue, but nothing says seriousness like a cash commitment.

The airline is definitely in the driver’s seat – or the cockpit, if you prefer – but it has not entirely ignored Tallahassee’s entreaties.

There’s no question the city needs JetBlue more than it needs us. Tallahassee has lousy air service – more than half of its travelers drive to Jacksonville, Orlando or Tampa for cheaper fares – and that’s an impediment to economic development.

Any new airline can only be an improvement. But city officials aren’t sending any valentines to Spirit or Allegiant.

JetBlue has a sort of WalMart effect. Like the world’s largest retailer, wherever it goes, local competitors scowl and curse and lower their prices. With government agencies, higher education and business activity, convenient service to Fort Lauderdale would be mutually beneficial for the city and the airline.

Curry has been meeting with JetBlue planners a few times a year since he came to Tallahassee in 2014, focusing on South Florida, Washington and New York. He said the airline seems interested in Fort Lauderdale as a gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean.

So it’s not part of the business plan, but getting JetBlue would help wipe the smirk off people’s faces when they say “Tallahassee International Airport.”

JetBlue goes to places like Mexico City, Quito and St. Croix, along with many other business and vacation spots in the hemisphere. If Daytona Beach, Fort Myers and Sarasota can have JetBlue, why not the state capital?

Curry noted that JetBlue flies a 100-seat Embraer, which would fit nicely into a Tallahassee-Fort Lauderdale route. Four flights a day with 100 seats to Fort Lauderdale would be more convenient than two with 320 seats.

He said the city’s standard incentive package includes a one-year waiver of landing and ground-handling fees, terminal rent, plus marketing assistance. But this won’t be like AirTran.

In 2001, after an ardent but unrequited courtship of Southwest Airlines, the city put together a financial guarantee of what then-Mayor Scott Maddox termed “cheeks in the seats” for AirTran. When the subsidy ran out, so did AirTran.

Delta matched AirTran’s fares, so most of its customers stayed with the big carrier.

“Another part is, we would not be pursuing JetBlue, nor would JetBlue be interested in Tallahassee, if the statistical data did not show that it would work,” said Curry. “A lot of people driving to Jacksonville are flying to Fort Lauderdale or New York – on JetBlue.”

So why not have them fly from here – on JetBlue?

The letter-writing and publicity events are nice, but FSU’s million-dollar pledge – and solid support from other local economic drivers – show tangible proof that we’re serious about improving air service to the capital of the nation’s third-largest state.


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