Over a five-day period last month, JetBlue Airways released one notice after another about new routes it planned to add from Fort Lauderdale: Quito, Mexico City, Philadelphia.
That trio was in addition to previously announced new flights this year to Baltimore, Albany, Cleveland and Detroit — some of which have already started.
“It won’t keep up this pace,” warned Dave Clark, vice president of network planning for JetBlue, which is based in Long Island City, New York.
While the flurry of announcements has slowed, the low-cost carrier with a reputation for customer-friendly practices (think: unlimited free snacks, Wi-Fi at no charge and live TV) is in the midst of an aggressive long-term expansion at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Already, the airport is the third busiest for JetBlue after John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Boston Logan International Airport.
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Fort Lauderdale has been part of JetBlue’s network since the earliest days: The first flight was from John F. Kennedy International Airport to FLL. South Florida was seen mainly as a destination initially, but as the airline started adding Caribbean and Latin American flights, Fort Lauderdale became an ideal launching point for the expanded route map.
Seeing potential for growth in Latin American markets where economies were improving — and recognizing that South Florida was growing faster than other U.S. gateway cities — the company in 2012 “made an explicit decision to grow it much more strategically and proactively,” Clark said.
The result: “Fort Lauderdale 100,” a goal to grow to roughly 100 flights a day by 2017. This year, the airline will fly an average of 69 flights a day, peaking in the coming winter at nearly 90.
Clark said the plan has been going better than expected: “If we branded it today, it would probably be something like ‘Fort Lauderdale 125’ or higher.”
JetBlue is pursuing its growth plan as Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport moves forward on a $2.3 billion expansion that already saw the opening of a second runway last year. Concession upgrades and a rebuilding of Terminal 4 to accommodate more international flights are in the works, expected to be finished by 2017.
“What we’re kind of excited about is the growth is going to come at a time when those projects are going to be nearing completion,” said Jason Annunziata, JetBlue’s director at FLL. “We’re hitting the stride at the right time.”
Broward County aviation director Kent George said that the airline’s growth is “extremely good news” for the community, which has responded well to JetBlue’s offerings.
“They’re a wonderful carrier,” he said. “They provide a wonderful product and they’ve really filled a niche in the community with great service — and that service includes customer service too.”
But George said the growth also presents challenges for the space-constrained airport.
“So what we do is we work with them in the phasing of their flights to be able to accommodate their needs,” he said. “And honestly, I believe that if we had the gates tomorrow, they’d put in more flights tomorrow.”
Annunziata said some difficulties with long lines at security and at customs have already been addressed through new processes such as automated passport control kiosks for passengers arriving internationally and the inclusion of more travelers in expedited security lines.
And infrastructure solutions are in the works: A new automated baggage inspection system that will speed up the luggage screening process is on track to be finished by June of 2016 and fully integrated by 2017. A new, larger food court coming to Terminal 3 is expected to prevent some of the crowding that happens at the gates now. And as part of the Terminal 4 construction, an enclosed connector will let passengers move from check-in at JetBlue’s counter to the international terminal without having to go outside.
Even the entrance is getting attention. Annunziata said that by November, new check-in counters will be in place and repositioned to open up the area and ease congestion. And the “welcome crew” will be equipped with technology to let them be more proactive as they help passengers who are getting ready to take a flight.
The changes all reflect the airline’s kinder, gentler approach to air travel that has earned it top marks for customer satisfaction among low-cost carriers for 11 years in a row in the annual J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study.
“Our mission is to inspire humanity,” Annunziata said.
And, Clark said, that mission helps the airline differentiate itself from the competition, including American Airlines, with its extensive Latin American routes from Miami, and Spirit, an ultra low-cost carrier.
“If you add advantages of Fort Lauderdale vs. Miami, we really feel we are in Fort Lauderdale creating a travel experience one, that can’t be matched and, two, at a price point far less than most people pay,” Clark said.
Free perks such as snacks and drinks, live DirecTV, basic Wi-Fi, a checked bag and ample legroom have won over customers like Dan Hobby.
The 68-year-old Coconut Creek resident and his wife, Brenda, try to fly on JetBlue if it goes where they’re traveling, and they catch flights from either Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach International Airport.
Hobby highlighted the friendliness of employees, the punctuality of planes, the TVs in the back of each seat and especially the lack of extra charges.
“I really like the fact that generally speaking you avoid a lot of the add-on charges and they take the first bag for free,” he said. “It separates it from a lot of the other airlines that may have a lower fare, but by the time you give them your credit card number, you’re up higher than you might expect.”
But JetBlue has been under pressure from Wall Street to improve profitability, which means changes are in store. Former CEO Dave Barger, who had been part of the founding team, announced in September that he would leave the company when his contract expired in February.
And in November, the airline announced a “plan to drive shareholder returns” through means including retrofitting the Airbus A320 fleet with more (albeit lighter) seats and rolling out a new fare structure at the end of June that will require passengers to pay for a checked bag if they choose the cheapest option. That leaves Southwest as the only major U.S. carrier not to charge for checked bags.
When it made the announcement, the airline said the initiatives, which also include the premium service Mint on some flights and other revenue generators, are expected to generate more than $400 million in annual operating income starting in 2017.
For passengers such as Hobby, the question remains whether changes will put a dent in customer affection.
“It would certainly, it seems to me, put JetBlue at a little bit of a competitive disadvantage in choosing an airline if they don’t stand out in that way,” said Hobby, executive director of the historic Sample-McDougald House in Pompano Beach. “And also I guess there are people who usually fly JetBlue that this may come as sort of a betrayal that will cause them to reevaluate their loyalty: ‘I thought you loved us!’”
Jamie Perry, vice president of brand and product development, said the elements that help the airline stand out will stay in place.
“We will continue to offer more legroom in coach than anyone else even once those changes are made,” he said. “We will continue to offer free TV and the fastest Wi-Fi in the sky free of charge.”
Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the trade publication Airline Weekly, said he expects that investors will be pleased and customers will “still be reasonably happy.”
“Will some people be a little less happy? Probably,” he said. “But will that be a meaningful difference in happiness and will it translate into any kind of real changes in behaviors? Probably not.”
For Katie Healy, an accounting consultant who lives in Miami and travels to Washington, D.C., for work about once a month, JetBlue will still be one of her top choices as long as base fares don’t climb significantly.
“I like the TVs, I like the flight attendants; now they have Wi-Fi,” said Healy, who has flown the airline since 2003. “I just like the experience.”
She said that while other airlines seem to have sacrificed customer service in favor of bolstering their bottom line, JetBlue has avoided that fate. But she knows the pressure is on. Healy said she doesn’t mind a few extra seats on a plane or a fee for checked bags, since she never checks one anyway. For her, the key must-haves are personal TVs for each passenger and Wi-Fi on more planes.
“I understand it’s a business,” she said. “I know they’re one of the last ones to do it. I know it was a matter of time.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.
Headquarters: Long Island City, Nwe York
Total daily flights: 875
Daily flights in Fort Lauderdale: 69 on average
Employees worldwide: 17,000
Employees in Fort Lauderdale: About 1,300
Cookies distributed in 2014: 8 million bags of chocolate chip cookies
Net income in 2014: $401 million
Awards: Recently won highest honor in customer satisfaction among low-cost carriers for the 11th year in a row from J.D. Power.
Source: JetBlue, FLL and Miami Herald research
Top carriers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport*
Percent of traffic
*As of first quarter of 2015
Source: Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport