Low-fare carrier JetBlue Airways, which lifted off on 11 February with two leased Airbus A320s, expects to be serving 11 US destinations by the end of the year and has set its sights on 30 US cities within three years.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that talks about JetBlue becoming the US arm of Richard Branson's Virgin dynasty foundered on the inability of foreign investors to take large shareholdings in US airlines.

New York Kennedy-based JetBlue is initially operating its 162-seat A320s on services to Buffalo in New York and Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Services to Tampa, Florida, will begin on 16 March and, within a year or so, the airline aims to serve Rochester and Syracuse in New York and Burlington, Vermont.

To improve utilisation the carrier is also considering transcontinental night flights to destinations like Seattle, Portland and San Diego.

JetBlue holds orders for 25 new A320s and options on another 50 aircraft, with leases on seven more of the narrowbodies. By the end of the year, 10 aircraft will have been delivered, with the airline planning to increase its fleet at a rate of one aircraft every five weeks over the next three years. The airline's chief executive David Neeleman will decide "within 12 months" on the aircraft on option.

He says he had hoped to clone Virgin, with Richard Branson taking a 25% stake, but negotiations fell through. "We went our separate ways when Branson decided he wanted to control the airline." Virgin confirms the discussions but says that plans mainly foundered on US legislation that prevented it taking a larger stake.

Neeleman expects JetBlue to post an operating loss of $5.6 million in its first year of operations, but expects to be in profit for the last five months of the year.

"We have the capital [$130 million] to survive, and our costs are significantly lower than those of the major US airlines," he says.

Source: Flight International