ANALYSIS: JetBlue embarks on expansion at Fort Lauderdale

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New York-based JetBlue Airways is eyeing growth of its international network out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport, as it leverages on an ongoing expansion of the airport's facilities.

The carrier, which has indicated in recent months that South Florida will feature in its future growth, revealed at an investors day on 20 March that it plans to grow the number of daily flights out of Fort Lauderdale to 100 in 2017.

JetBlue is peaking at about 63 flights out of the airport this winter, its vice-president of network and partnerships Scott Laurence tells Flightglobal.

Most of the growth out of Fort Lauderdale will be to international destinations, he says. "We've been very pleased with Fort Lauderdale, it's got a growing opportunity in international markets," says Laurence.

Pointing to the strong potential for leisure and visiting friends and relatives (VFR) traffic out of the airport, Laurence says: "South Florida offers very intriguing opportunities."

Fort Lauderdale airport is operated and owned by Broward County, a subdivision of the state of Florida. Airport director Kent George estimates that the airport has a catchment of about six to 6.5 million passengers in South Florida.

JetBlue will look to open flights to new international destinations as well as add frequencies on existing routes. Bogota, which is served daily from Fort Lauderdale, has potential for a second frequency, says Laurence. Nassau, Santo Domingo and San Jose (Costa Rica) are also markets that could receive additional flights.

New markets that the carrier could serve from Fort Lauderdale include Lima, Montego Bay, Port-au-Prince and cities in Venezuela and Mexico, says Laurence. "There's a lot of runway there [for new markets]," he adds.

JetBlue now flies to Cancun in Mexico but it could serve Mexico City, Toluca and Monterrey from Fort Lauderdale, says Laurence.

Brazilian cities such as Manaus and Recife, which will be "right at the limit" of JetBlue's Airbus A320s, are also being considered.

JetBlue's existing network out of Fort Lauderdale

Source: FlightMaps Analytics

JetBlue operates out of Fort Lauderdale airport's terminal three, where it has about eight gates. International flights into Fort Lauderdale, however, arrive into terminal four, which is equipped with immigrations and customs facilities.

The airport's operator is in the midst of expansion works at terminal four, a project that is scheduled to be completed by early 2017, dovetailing with JetBlue's plan to grow daily departures to 100. Under the expansion, the terminal's 10 gates will be demolished and replaced with 14 new gates. Twelve of these 14 gates will be "swing gates" that can handle both domestic and international flights.

George tells Flightglobal that six of the 14 gates will be ready by end 2014 or early 2015, while the remaining eight gates will be completed in end 2016 or early 2017.

Terminal three, which has 20 gates, will be connected with terminal four by 2014 to facilitate the transfer of passengers from arriving international flights to domestic connections.

Currently, up to seven of the existing 10 gates at terminal four are used for international flights, says George, noting that the expansion project will increase significantly the airport's capability to handle international arrivals.

In the meantime, the airport is also rebuilding one of its two runways. The south runway was formerly utilised by general aviation aircraft but will be available for commercial flights when it is ready in the third or fourth quarter of 2014.

At 8,000ft long, it will complement the airport's other 9,000ft long runway.

The airport's expansion is key in helping JetBlue grow its presence at Fort Lauderdale, says Laurence, who calls George an "instrumental" partner in its growth out of the airport.

Besides being a willing partner, the airport also appeals to JetBlue in two other ways - it is less congested than Miami International and the operating costs are lower for the airline.

Pointing to the long waiting times encountered by passengers arriving on international flights at Miami, Laurence says: "We don't want to put them through a 90-minute wait to clear immigrations and customs... we don't want to create the Miami experience."

To avoid this, JetBlue must be "gentle" with how it schedules its international flights arriving into Fort Lauderdale, he adds. This could involve scheduling flights to arrive during off-peak periods when the airport is less busy, such as the late morning period.

As a result, JetBlue aircraft could stay overnight in certain international destinations and make the return northbound trip in the early morning. JetBlue's Fort Lauderdale-Bogota flight already operates on such a schedule, says Laurence.

Fort Lauderdale's lower costs have also made the airport attractive to low-cost airlines. Ultra low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines is based at the airport, although JetBlue says it does not consider Spirit a direct competitor because the two airlines are going after different market segments.

Broward County's George touts the airport's costs as a major factor behind its appeal, saying: "Broward County has been good stewards of the airlines' money. It's incumbent upon us to ensure rates and charges are low." As a result, fares out of Fort Lauderdale are 20% to 25% cheaper than fares at Miami and Palm Beach International Airport, says George.

Fort Lauderdale airport's average cost per enplaned passengers in its last fiscal year ended September 2012 was $4.05, he adds. "At Miami, it is over $28. At Palm Beach [International Airport], it was over $12."

The improvements to the airport will be factored into the rates to be paid by the airlines using the airport. George believes that the improvements will help to continue to keep costs low, as it expects to benefit as well from the increased traffic that JetBlue will bring with its growth out of the airport. "We look at airlines being our partner. We will work with them to meet the needs of their growth," says George.