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JetBlue returns to Ontario airport as the airline battle for Southern California heats up

JetBlue returns to Ontario airport as the airline battle for Southern California heats up
JetBlue announced plans to expand its service in the West by adding new service at Ontario International Airport and expanding service from Burbank and Palm Springs. (Susan Stocker / Sun Sentinel)

The competition for Southern California air travelers is heating up, with JetBlue Airways trying to draw new passengers by returning to Ontario International Airport after a 10-year absence and increasing its flights out of Burbank and Palm Springs.

The announcement of the new routes, starting as early as September, comes only months after JetBlue's biggest California rivals — Southwest and Alaska airlines — unveiled added service from Los Angeles and Orange counties.

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"The Los Angeles Basin is the second-largest airline market in the country," said Martin St. George, JetBlue's executive vice president for commercial and planning. "We think this is a natural extension of our overall strategy."

Expanding air service makes sense. Most economic indicators point to higher demand for travel among Americans. A record 965 million domestic and international passengers flew on U.S.-based carriers last year, up 3.4% over 2016, according to federal officials.

Stephen Boyd, a senior director at Fitch Ratings, said in a memo to investors this week that "low unemployment, healthy consumer confidence and a boost in personal income are promoting higher discretionary consumer spending — particularly on travel."

To take advantage of the growth, JetBlue is returning to Ontario International Airport starting Sept. 5, a decade after the airline pulled out. Although JetBlue is cutting back its service at Long Beach Airport at the same time, the move to Ontario expands JetBlue's service to a faster-growing market in the region.

The New York-based carrier is returning partly in response to the increasing popularity of the airport that draws travelers from Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. At Ontario, JetBlue is adding a daily nonstop flight to and from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Passenger volume at Ontario has grown 10% in the first three months of the year to 1.14 million travelers, compared with the same period in 2016. The amount of cargo flown out of the airport has also surged by 16% in the same period, up to 146,000 tons.

Ontario has become more attractive for airlines since Inland Empire governments took control of the airport away from Los Angeles in 2016 and lowered landing fees by 24%, according to Ontario airport officials. For airlines, the overall cost of flying out of the airport, including the cost of renting terminal space, has dropped 13% since 2016, Ontario officials say.

JetBlue is also adding to the frequency of its existing routes from Hollywood Burbank and Palm Springs International Airport to destinations such as Boston and New York.

But JetBlue plans to cut back on the frequency of flights out of Long Beach Airport, primarily because city officials there quashed plans last year to add a Customs and Border Protection station to screen international fliers. The carrier had hoped to launch flights to Mexico and Latin America from the airport, but local residents complained about an increase in noise and traffic from the added flights.

JetBlue is cutting the frequency of its flights out of Long Beach from 35 per day to 23, starting in September, St. George said.

The carrier has also had an ongoing feud with the city over late-night noise violations. In January alone, JetBlue was cited for 35 out of the 37 noise violations issued against airlines at the airport, according to city reports.

JetBlue's biggest rivals, Alaska and Southwest airlines, have been making their own moves to bolster their business in Southern California as larger carriers American, United and Delta battle each other to serve first- and business-class transcontinental and international passengers who fly out of larger airports, including LAX and San Francisco International Airport.

Low-cost carriers Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue now carry half of all passengers at Los Angeles, Burbank and Long Beach airports, according to an analysis by Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation's carriers.

At LAX, Southwest carries about 11% of all travelers, making it the fourth-busiest carrier, behind American, Delta and United airlines. Alaska, combined with its recently acquired Virgin America, carries nearly 9% of travelers at LAX. JetBlue carries only about 2% of travelers there but is the largest carrier at Long Beach Airport, carrying about 80% of passengers. It will remain the largest even after its flight reductions.

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Southwest Airlines executives are so focused on dominating in California that they jokingly call themselves "the California airline, based in Dallas."

In February, Southwest announced it will increase the frequency of flights from Los Angeles International Airport to Tampa, New Orleans and Portland, Ore.

"Other carriers fall in and out of love with the L.A. Basin — adding and subtracting flights and service and headcount — yet we've steadily built our business through the decades to now carry more people to and from California than any other carrier," said Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins.

Seattle-based Alaska Airline became a major player in California when it acquired Bay Area-based Virgin America in 2016 and began taking over its West Coast routes.

Alaska Airlines is expected to begin service from Paine Field, a small airport north of Seattle, in September and has already announced it will add several flights from that airport to Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.

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