JetBlue Airways CEO Dave Barger says his company's New Orleans routes are "nicely profitable" and that additional flights from Louis Armstrong International Airport could be added.
JetBlue operates four daily flights from New Orleans -- three to New York's JFK International Airport and one to Boston. Bulking up service along those routes, particularly the New Orleans to Boston route, would likely come first, Barger said this week. Adding even one more daily round-trip flight between New Orleans and Boston would make it possible for New Orleans travelers to fly in and out of Boston on the same day if they needed to, he said.
JetBlue is also interested in building on its presence in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale in Florida as well as Los Angeles and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Flights between New Orleans and one or more of those destinations could be added long-term. "Those are all potential adds," Barger said.
This year, Barger is visiting each of the 61 cities JetBlue serves in celebration of the airline's 10th anniversary. The low-cost air carrier began flying in February 2000 and quickly became known for its sometimes off-beat promotions and its plush in-flight experience, featuring 36 channels of live satellite programming and seats that are larger than most others in the industry. In 2001, the airline began operating out of New Orleans, where Barger's anniversary tour brought him last week.
"There's something about cities like New Orleans. They march to the beat of a different drummer. Our brand just really seems to resonate (with them)," said Barger, wearing a Drew Brees No. 9 Saints jersey given to him by local JetBlue employees to commemorate the airline's nine years in New Orleans.
Barger, a Detroit native, called New Orleans home for a couple of years in the mid-1980s when he oversaw New York Air's operations at Louis Armstrong. New York Air, which has since been acquired by Continental, operated flights from New Orleans to Boston and Newark, routes that are similar to the ones JetBlue now operates out of Louis Armstrong.
Barger describes JetBlue's passenger traffic through New Orleans as a gumbo of Tulane students, conventioneers, business travelers, tourists, and Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest-goers.
Between 30 percent and 40 percent of JetBlue's New Orleans market comprises trips that originate from the Crescent City by passengers who live or work locally.
"That usually indicates a fairly strong level of local business," Barger said. "That's real positive."
And though passenger traffic across all airlines at Louis Armstrong remains about 20 percent below where it was before Hurricane Katrina, according to figures from the airport, Barger thinks activity will rebound.
"My sense is that that will not only normalize, but build again," he said. "It's amazing how strong this community is."
Barger also said he's been pleased with some of the recent investments that have been made at Louis Armstrong, including an expanded parking structure and upgrades to the runways.
"I like to see the investments," he said.
Since JetBlue's inception 10 years ago, the airline industry has faced a series of challenges, including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a spike in gasoline prices, and recession. JetBlue has faced its own challenges along the way. In 2007, a snowstorm in the Northeast left thousands of the airline's passengers stranded on Valentine's Day.
Barger, who has been with JetBlue since it launched, said the concept of controlled growth is one of the biggest lessons the airline has learned in its 10 years.
In 2006, JetBlue was taking on a new airplane every 10 days. This year, the airline is taking a new plane about every 30 days, and next year's growth rate is expected to be about the same.
"It's still significant growth," Barger said. But the slower pace gives JetBlue time to deploy its aircraft more carefully and integrate the new staff it must hire for each plane.
"It allows you to be more surgical in terms of where you are deploying aircraft," he said. "It allows the time to be innovative."
"There's got to be some 'think' time."
And though the recession has challenged the airline industry, Barger said it's also reinforced the value of low-cost airlines like JetBlue.
"So many people (tried) us because they were looking for a better deal," he said.
In recent weeks, JetBlue has been in the news because one of its flight attendants, Steven Slater, cursed out a passenger over an intercom and then jumped down the plane's emergency slide with a beer in hand.
Barger said he looks at the event as "an extraordinary one-off event" and points out that there are tens of thousands of professional flight attendants whose focus is safety.
"We're going to be patient and work with the authorities and Steven," he said.
Looking to the future, Barger said JetBlue is prepared to adapt so that it can remain competitive, even if it means veering from its original business formula and beginning to fly larger aircraft and longer flights.
"What got us here won't get us there," he said.