Last updated: 11:00 AM ET, Fri October 23 2015

JetBlue CEO: Our Growth Is Tied To The Caribbean

Airlines & Airports | Brian Major | October 23, 2015

JetBlue CEO: Our Growth Is Tied To The Caribbean

PHOTO: Robin Hayes, JetBlue’s President and CEO. (Photo courtesy of the Caribbean Tourism Organization)

JetBlue’s growth as an airline will rely heavily on its continued expansion in the Caribbean region, said Robin Hayes, president and chief executive office of JetBlue Airways.

Speaking this week at the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO)’s State of the Industry conference in Curacao, Hayes said JetBlue was conceived as an “an all-coach, all-domestic, single fleet airline” and launched its first Caribbean flights in 2002 with a sole New York-to-San Juan route from its headquarters at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The flights were launched to serve New York’s “huge Puerto Rican-born population” said Hayes, and represented “a natural fit and a safe bet for us to begin exploring the region.”

By 2004, JetBlue had inaugurated service to the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how quickly our Caribbean growth would accelerate and how significant this part of the world would become to our network in the ensuing years,” Hayes said.

JetBlue officials soon realized the Caribbean deployments fit the company’s strategy of identifying “underserved and overpriced” markets and stimulating demand by introducing lower fares and higher service levels. “It didn’t take long to see the Caribbean presented the same sort of growth opening we’d seen in the U.S. domestic marketplace,” said Hayes.

JetBlue now serves 27 Caribbean airports; the airline will add Antigua to the list in two weeks, Hayes said. One-third of JetBlue’s capacity is now devoted to Caribbean and Latin American cities. “These vibrant, unique communities are so critical to our success,” he said.

JetBlue also maintains codeshare agreements with regional airlines including Cape Air, LIAT, Silver Airways and Seaborne Airlines, which provide travelers with access to intra-Caribbean flights. “We’ve succeeded in places where our legacy competitors had maybe become a bit too complacent, and we’ve also built entirely new markets that had never been flown before,” said Hayes.

In fact, one of the Caribbean’s most talked-about markets – Cuba – is not a new one for JetBlue. “We’re already there and we have been since 2011 with charter flights from Florida and as of this summer, from New York, as well,” said Hayes. “This has given us a tremendous amount of operating experience that will give us a leg up when our countries sign an aviation treaty that will pave the way for scheduled service.”

He said travel to Cuba “is sure to expand significantly once regularly scheduled flights from the U.S. begin,” but added, “the infrastructure needs to support any influx of tourists are massive. It’s going to be a long time before Cuba’s full potential is realized. These transformations do not happen overnight.”

In the meantime, JetBlue will enter “several” new Caribbean markets and will also expand its service to existing regional destinations.

“On our most popular routes we’re going to lay on additional frequencies or deploy our larger A321 aircraft,” he said. Additional capacity has already been added in Montego Bay and Punta Cana, said Hayes. JetBlue will also expand service between Curacao and New York with a third weekly flight next year.

The airline has also emerged as a leading carrier in Haiti, one of the Caribbean’s top emerging leisure destinations. “Earlier this week we announced plans to bring the 321 to Port-au-Prince and to increase flights from Boston, New York and Fort Lauderdale in response to growing demand for travel to Haiti, [which] includes a growing element of tourist traffic,” said Hayes. “In total, we will increase our service to Haiti by more than 50,000 seats, an increase of 80 percent since JetBlue entered the market two years ago.”

Hayes said JetBlue’s business model focuses on “fair fares” and differs significantly from that of legacy airlines. “We have a desire and the ability to add capacity when we see fares creeping up. Haiti is a good example of that,” he said. “By offering more seats, we can offer more low fares and support tourism growth. This is very different to the traditional legacy model of keeping fares high.”

JetBlue will continue its Caribbean expansion into the foreseeable future, Hayes said. “Next year we have 10 new aircraft entering our fleet and in 2017 we have another 10 coming,” he said. “We need places to point all those planes and a lot of them are coming south to the Caribbean.”

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