Sunday, May 21, 2017

JetBlue momentum losing steam - Tallahassee, Florida

Efforts to snag JetBlue aren't taking off at the speed local officials hoped.

The campaign seems to have lost momentum, despite glossy "GetBlue" campaigns, the Legislature's $1-million funding offer and promises to use services through written commitments from local universities and businesses.

City officials all but rolled out the red carpet to coax the New York-based carrier to provide direct flights from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale. So far, JetBlue is a no show. City Commissioner Scott Maddox, who's spearheading airport improvement efforts, said JetBlue was impressed with Tallahassee's community effort. The capital city made a case for service, he said, but JetBlue wants to serve secondary routes, too.

"We won’t see any movement in 2017, but we’re hopeful for 2018," Maddox said, adding he knows what's at stake. "If we are going to have meaningful economic development in Tallahassee, we have to have more flights out of our airport and that’s why I have been working so hard at this."

. Tallahassee's economy, long dominated by public sector jobs, has shown growth. Unemployment continues to decline and other economic indicators, including consumer spending, have improved compared to recent years. The population in Tallahassee's Metropolitan Service Area is 378,593 residents and shows a steady increase.

The airport often features in talks about Tallahassee's economy. Even during last week's Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce trip to Nashville, Tennessee, gripes surfaced over the high cost of airfare and the limited flight options. Some said the lack of options is a deterrent to new businesses, who then turn to other communities to open plants or to expand existing facilities. The airport issue, they said, must be a priority.

"It's a work in progress," City Aviation Director Chris Curry said, regarding JetBlue. "As long as they continue to meet with us, the conversation isn’t dead. They have a timetable and sometimes what they have going, it may affect something else ... It’s only dead with airlines when you stop meeting with them to get new service.”

Dual city-community campaigns have taken place to lure JetBlue. Sachs Media Group, a Tallahassee public relations firm, orchestrated the campaign pro bono. The GetBlue campaign drew more than $2 million in local pledges and more than $1 million in Broward pledges to book JetBlue flights.

Curry and Maddox have met with JetBlue officials on several occasions in an effort to close a deal. Curry, who meets with various airlines about four times a year, said he plans to have another meeting next month.

"I’ll continue to do that in the hopes that Tallahassee is a place they want to be,” he said.

Tallahassee has a checkered history when it comes to improving the city's limited flight options. Citing a lack of profitability, AirTran Airways ended its flights from Tallahassee to Atlanta and Tampa in 2004. A few years ago, Tallahassee landed direct service to Washington D.C. through US Airways. When the airline consolidated with United Airlines, the route was axed.

In the case of JetBlue, the city is offering more than $1 million in incentives during the carrier's first year. The package includes covering JetBlue's landing and fuel fees and start-up expenses. The incentives would be paid for using a $1-million grant awarded by the Legislature this year, plus $25,000 in in-kind donations from the chamber, $40,000 from the Tourist Development Council and about $270,000 from airport funds, which Curry hopes will be covered by revenues.

Maddox, mayor from 1997 to 2003, said Tallahassee's airport is in better shape than other similar Florida cities, including Gainesville and Melbourne. He's gone to great lengths to snare meetings with airport presidents and CEOs. When he learned former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher was in Jefferson County, Maddox did some research and found out Kelleher's interests.

Maddox has told the story often. He made sure Kelleher had a box of cigars and a bottle of Booker's Bourbon, along with a note to consider Tallahassee for airfare service. That got the city in the door for a meeting. But no service.

Maddox heard then what he's heard before: Tallahassee's proximity to several hubs, such as Jacksonville and Atlanta, hurts the airport's chances of adding more flights to the lineup.

“I think the airport is a tremendous asset," said Tallahassee City Manager Rick Fernandez, adding a JetBlue deal isn't "imminent" but conversations will continue. "The number of flights and the economics of it is a whole different deal. As an airport operator, the city has very little control over that. It’s a matter of the market. The airlines will price the commodity as they see fit.”

Built in 1989, Tallahassee's airport added "international" to its name status in 2015. At this time, that allows the airport to be a stopping point for international cargo — not travelers. While city officials say the international designation is a leap toward bringing more offerings to the airport, some Nashville trip-goers noted comments from the community where people are "laughing at us."

The terminal has undergone a $12-million makeover and renovations to refresh the outdated interior with new terrazzo tiles throughout that showcase branches of state and local government, Florida State and Florida A&M universities and Tallahassee Community College.

Top-down changes were made to the airline ticket and rental counters, the flooring, ceiling tiles, lighting and in-line baggage handling system. The airport gallery is now larger and stretches across the wall facing the ticket counters. A new visitor counter, manned by volunteers, offers information for not only the airport but the region.

Officials tout the improvements as being part of the grand plan to attract more carriers and services.

Time will tell.

Original article can be found here: http://www.tallahassee.com

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