When jetBlue initiates service from Green Airport to Florida this afternoon, there’s sure to be a lot of hoopla – as there should be. jetBlue has been on the Rhode Island Airport Corporation’s (RIAC) list to be enticed to the Ocean State for years. Its reputation for quality service and low fares is just what Green needs to build traffic. And traffic is the lifeblood to the airport.
Traffic is also critical to the airlines, so one would think the two are compatible and that the business is as simple as adding flights and filling planes. That it would put cars in RIAC parking lots, bring airport concessions plenty of business and fill up area hotels and restaurants; something that benefits everyone.
That’s what happened in 1996 with the new terminal, later named for Governor Bruce Sundlun who charged ahead with the two-tier $210 million facility and cleaved state airports from the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation, despite his critics. Southwest Airlines brought its discount fares to Rhode Island and soon Green became the nation’s fastest growing airport. Monthly, RIAC would report double-digit passenger growth from the month for the previous year and it seemed the terminal, designed to handle 6 million people annually, would soon be at capacity.
Then everything changed with 9/11.
Green Airport has still not seen the traffic of the pre-9/11 days and, in fact, the slide in passenger traffic continues. Last month’s count, a decline of 13 percent, was especially gloomy.
Hurricane Sandy canceled hundreds of flights across the northeast and was a contributing factor, but, as acting RIAC director Peter Frazier points out, there are some other underlying factors at work aside from the storm. In a word, it’s the economy.
Businesses have cut back, meaning not as many people are flying. The same is true of vacation travelers.
The airlines have trimmed operations to reduce costs and maximize profits from those who choose to fly. We’ve seen it here. Smaller planes with fewer seats have taken the place of the larger ones; unprofitable service has been cut from the schedule; baggage that once flew for free is an added expense; and airplanes are packed.
Green’s ability to grow is limited by the number of seats. Without more seats, regardless of how many people want to fly, there are only so many tickets.
So, the fact that jetBlue is bringing in three additional daily flights to Green are a plus. Will it mean a jetBlue effect the way Southwest rapidly became Green’s dominant carrier?
We wish that it would. If that were to happen, as it did in the ’90s, it would mean improved business and more jobs, not only at the airport but also to related businesses throughout the state, in a matter of months.
Such expectation, unfortunately, is misplaced. The airlines, like businesses everywhere, have learned to take small steps, rather than leaps, in this recession. We doubt that jetBlue’s presence in this market will trigger a price war that would drive down fares and pump up demand to the point where airlines are adding flights and capacity.
What it does mean, as Frazier aptly pointed out, is that it sets the stage for when the economy turns around. jetBlue will be here. It is a player and that bodes well for Green and Rhode Island.