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JetBlue may add Providence, Worcester

CEO Dave Barger is looking at expansion

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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JetBlue Airways Corp., the dominant airline at Boston’s Logan International Airport, may expand to Providence and eventually Worcester, even as it plans to boost service out of Logan from the current 100 to 150 daily flights.

Meeting with reporters after a speech at the Boston College Chief Executives’ Club of Boston yesterday, JetBlue chief executive Dave Barger said the Massachusetts Port Authority approached him about operating out of Worcester Regional Airport, which the authority oversees, along with Logan.

“I think Massport has put Worcester on our radar screen,’’ said Barger, adding that he also discussed the idea yesterday with Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey.

Barger indicated the airline’s first priority is the Providence area, saying he visited T.F. Green Airport in nearby Warwick, R.I., last weekend to assess its potential as a JetBlue destination.

“I think we’re real interested in adding Providence into the region,’’ Barger said. “I can’t give you a timeline.’’

T.F. Green, close to highways serving the Providence area, appears better prepared to host JetBlue flights, Barger said. “I think we’re real impressed with what we saw with the infrastructure in Providence,’’ he said.

By contrast, Worcester Regional Airport, located at a high elevation and surrounded by residential neighborhoods, lacks highway access and needs significant upgrades to navigational aids for takeoffs and landings in bad weather. “I mean, it gets a little foggy up there,’’ Barger said.

The Worcester airport won’t be ready to handle regular flights by JetBlue for some time, Davey said.

“We know that right now, given the constraints on access, that the market isn’t attractive to JetBlue,’’ he said. “We can’t change it overnight, but it is part of our mission to make the investment at the airport and encourage folks like JetBlue over time to come.’’

South Carolina-based Direct Air is the only regularly scheduled airline flying out of Worcester, offering six flights a week to Florida and South Carolina.

A Massport spokesman said Direct Air has carried about 75,000 passengers so far this year. By comparison, during the 12 months ended in June, more than 27,000 flights from 27 carriers departed from T.F. Green, carrying nearly 2 million passengers.

Barger said he is committed to growth at Logan, where JetBlue employs about 2,000 workers.

He said the company’s “Boston 150’’ plan will increase the number of departures from Boston by 50 percent, to 150 a day.

To support this traffic, JetBlue hopes to gain access to all of the gates at Logan’s Terminal C.

In November, JetBlue will gain access to three gates currently held by AirTran Airways, which has been acquired by Southwest Airlines. AirTran will relocate to Terminal E, which houses Southwest.

JetBlue is also trying to negotiate a deal to get control of gates used by United Airlines. That would require moving the United gates to Terminal A, which hosts Delta Airlines.

Arranging so many gate swaps among competing airlines is “like this house of cards,’’ said Henry H. Harteveldt, airline industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco.

“You’ve got to be very careful,’’ he said. “If you take the wrong card out, everything collapses.’’

One of JetBlue’s rivals could fight a move that would promote the expansion of a major competitor, he added.

In his speech to the Chief Executives’ Club, Barger denounced the recent congressional stalemate that forced a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.

He also complained about the Obama administration’s proposed increase in the passenger security fee that was added to airfares after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We are taxed more than cigarettes,’’ he said. “We’re taxed more than alcohol. Welcome to the next great sin: air travel.’’

He also urged a major overhaul of the air traffic control system, which he said relies on World War II-era technology, while other countries are embracing the latest digital systems.

Barger said that in 1953, American Airlines flew propeller-driven planes from Boston to New York in under an hour. The same flight today, on a jet, takes an hour and 35 minutes, mainly due to inefficient air traffic control.

“Think about that. How crazy it is,’’ Barger said. “And [yet] we accept it.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.