JetBlue, the New York airline popular since its start 18 years ago for mixing lower fares, a hip attitude and better amenities, on Thursday landed and took off its first flights at Minneapolis-St. Paul International, the biggest airport it was not yet serving.
Its arrival is the culmination of efforts by JetBlue's corporate customers, airport officials and some of its own employees — several dozen live in Minnesota — to attract the airline to MSP.
"Today we reap the reward of that perseverance," said Brian Ryks, executive director and CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which owns and operates the airport. "JetBlue is one of the most respected airlines in the nation."
Airport officials and passengers are eager to have another airline in the market, hoping added competition will drive fares lower on more routes.
"I've been dying for them to fly out of the Twin Cities so we can have more choices," said Robert Finocchiaro, a Stillwater resident who visits family in the Boston area about three times a year. "I'm excited. I intentionally chose to fly JetBlue today."
To start, JetBlue will fly three roundtrips a day to Boston's Logan International Airport, joining Delta, Sun Country and Spirit airlines. Boston is one of the top 10 destinations for passengers from MSP.
"Assuming we are successful on this Boston route, we will likely next add a flight to one of our focus cities, like Fort Lauderdale or Orlando," Marty St. George, a JetBlue executive vice president, said.
JetBlue flight 835 from Boston touched down a little before 8:30 a.m. and was greeted with a water cannon salute as it rolled up to gate H9 at Terminal 2.
The first passengers flying to Boston received gift bags and access to tables full of Boston-themed swag. The Fort Snelling Fife and Drums Corps, replete in Revolutionary War-era garb, entertained air travelers waiting in the concourse.
Mery Maruani of St. Louis Park was the first Twin Cities passenger to board outbound flight 836. She plans to spend her 87th birthday in Israel where she once lived, her son Leo Maruani said on her behalf as she doesn't speak English. They chose JetBlue because it offers an affordable option for overseas travel and has a good connection to Tel Aviv with El Al, Israel's national airline and a JetBlue partner.
Eric Poole, a JetBlue captain who grew up in Robbinsdale and now lives in Northfield, landed the plane. His friend and colleague Eric Scott, of Farmington, took the first outbound flight back to Boston. Both have commuted to the airline's New York base for years. "We've been waiting for this for as long we've worked for JetBlue," Poole said.
Between 40 and 50 JetBlue pilots and flight attendants live in Minnesota. "No one has been bugging us more to fly to Minneapolis than all the Minnesotans within JetBlue," St. George said.
Like Sun Country and Southwest, JetBlue is primarily a domestic carrier with a few warm-weather locations in the Caribbean and Latin America. About 80 percent of its passengers are leisure travelers, though it has a number of large corporate clients, including firms with a big local presence, like Boston Scientific. The airline touts its free in-flight entertainment, free broadband internet access and the most legroom among U.S. airlines throughout the entire cabin.
"We recognize this is a service industry and we don't think our competitors always recognize that," St. George said. "The industry has really become a race to the bottom, while the legacy carriers are great if you are a super elite flier. From a 'tweener standpoint, we internally always talk about serving the underserved. We aren't one of the bare-bones carriers."
JetBlue arrives at a period of growth for MSP. The airport's passenger volume hit at an all-time high at just over 38 million last year and rising competition has pushed average fares lower in a market that, because of the dominance of Delta and Northwest before it, has long been more expensive than average.
Travelers can now reach 163 destinations nonstop from the Twin Cities, and 56 of them are served by multiple carriers. A record six carriers compete on the Twin Cities to Denver route. Since 2013, the average fare at MSP is down 13 percent.
For now, JetBlue poses no challenge to Delta's dominance at MSP. Delta flies to 120 destinations from the airport, its second-largest hub after Atlanta. "We face and welcome competition on a daily basis across our global network," Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said.
For Eagan-based Sun Country, which is reshaping its operations under new chief executive Jude Bricker, JetBlue represents pressure on both an established route and because it will be present in the same terminal.
Sun Country spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler didn't address the Boston route competition directly, but said, "We continuously evaluate our route network to ensure that we are offering affordable, nonstop service to the destinations most popular with area travelers."
Until now, Sun Country and JetBlue have operated in a segment of the airline industry similar to that of Southwest Airlines. The carriers are not the big legacy carriers, like Delta, United and American airlines that operate huge fleets and offer vast global networks and alliances. But they also aren't the same as ultra-low-cost carriers like Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, which charge bargain-basement prices for fares, but then charge customers for everything from a seat assignment to snacks.
"We have been watching what's going on [at Sun Country] and definitely think it creates an opportunity for us," JetBlue's St. George said.
The rise of low-cost carriers comes amid other changes in the industry. Unlike the pre-recession days when the large carriers created fortress hubs and defended that dominance by flying against any challengers, airlines are no longer willing to fly routes that don't earn a profit.
This created a chance in 2009 for Southwest Airlines, which MSP officials courted for two decades, to gain a foothold in the Twin Cities. It's now the fourth-largest airline at MSP and carried just over 2 million passengers last year. Spirit Airlines arrived in 2012 and has grown to the fifth-largest airline at MSP, ranking ahead of legacy carrier United.
"Delta does a great job with its hub and spoke system, but we see a segment of the market that sees fares as the most important thing and that we will be there for," Mark Kopczak, Spirit's vice president of network planning, said. "So that is great for customers who want a lower fare option."