JetBlue Airways has reduced its year-round service from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Sarasota to seasonal.
The nonstop service, which Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport has had for nearly a decade, will end in the first week of May and return sometime near the end of the year, airport CEO Frederick “Rick” Piccolo said Tuesday.
JetBlue's move follows significant growth for Sarasota-Bradenton in flights to the New York market as well as the airline's deeper expansion to the Caribbean market.
Those routes were still making money for JetBlue, Piccolo said, but eliminating off-season service would free up a plane for a more profitable market in the Caribbean.
“They have a lot of demands on their equipment,” Piccolo said. “It becomes an opportunity cost because they can use the aircraft on another route.”
The flights to JFK averaged about 78 percent loads in the summer months, but jumped to 87 percent in the winter months, Piccolo said.
Losing year-round service to JFK is not expected to hurt Sarasota's tourism industry as a whole, said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, the county's tourism agency. The cut is disappointing, she said, but New York-area travelers still have several nonstop flights available to bring them to the region.
“People are interested in our destination, and hopefully this just a small blip in that,” Haley said.
Sarasota-Bradenton International has welcomed a number of new flights to the New York market in recent years, which may have pulled traffic from the JFK flights, Piccolo said.
United Airlines began flying seasonally to and from New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport in February 2015, and extended that service from three months to five this year. Prior to that, JetBlue and Delta Airlines both added nonstop service to LaGuardia Airport in 2012, and those flights will continue to be available year-round.
“I think that LaGuardia is a more preferred airport for business people,” Piccolo said. “I think that went into the decision.”
JFK does, however, connect to more international flights, which could disrupt overseas travel.
Much of the trouble with boosting and maintaining Sarasota-Bradenton's air service comes from competition available in Southwest Florida. The major airlines know they can still attract Sarasota's travelers with flights to and from Tampa International Airport, Haley said. That along with temperamental airline industry can make Sarasota a hard sell.
“We have that looming giant in our backyard, and unfortunately people who live in Sarasota, they drive up to Tampa,” Haley said.
But Sarasota-Bradenton International has had a long string of wins in the past several months, with the additions of WestJet and Raven Air. The airport also saw increases in the number of seats available to destinations such as Toronto and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Service as a whole is up 6.5 percent for the first three months of this year over 2015, and talks with airlines about adding additional service are ongoing, Piccolo said.
“It's disappointing mainly because we've seen such progress with our air service,” Haley said. “It seemed like we were on a roll with all those wins, and those flights (we lost) were doing well.”
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