MCDERMOTT COLUMN: Persistence paid off in Charleston’s courtship of discount airline JetBlue

Air travel is a fickle, delay-prone process that can get set back in an instant by nasty weather or a mechanical failure. It demands patience, determination and stamina.

Charleston tourism officials needed all three to land JetBlue Airways, a discount carrier that local travelers and hospitality businesses hope will cut the cost of flying nonstop to and from two under-served big-city destinations: New York and Boston.

Fueled with $1 million in incentives from various sources, the deal announced Wednesday gives Charleston International the distinction of being the first airport in South Carolina to snag service from the airline.

Also, the airport will be among just 25 or so nationwide to be served by both Southwest Airlines and JetBlue.

“The really great thing for us is that this gives us more seats to New York, which we desperately need because that’s our No. 1 market,” said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. And for the first time, Charleston will be able to claim year-round air service to Boston, the No. 8 top local destination.

Conventional wisdom

The flights are certain to shuttle more leisure visitors to the region. But the local hospitality industry is looking to JetBlue to help boost a more lucrative source of tourism revenue.

“The convention business is maybe the thing we’re most excited about that we talked about the least,” Hill said. “Those are two big corporate markets.”

A nagging problem has been that some meeting planners have found Charleston to be an inconvenient place to fly into because of the dearth of nonstop air service. Also, while local fares have fallen overall, they remain relatively high for business travelers.

“We’re very competitive but expensive,” Hill said.

The hope now is that JetBlue’s arrival — the discounter will add more than 100,000 TV-equipped leather seats a year to the New York and Boston routes starting in February — will nudge Charleston higher in the corporate pecking order.

“Providing convenient air service to New York and Boston is ... a huge plus for our region,” said S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Logical place

The latest talks with JetBlue executives started about two-and-a-half years ago, but the first seed was planted in 1999.

Then an untested but well-funded startup, the airline was “considering” serving up to 44 cities 13 years ago, including Charleston, as it plotted its route structure. A spokeswoman at the time said the airline would continue to review any airports that were passed over. “We don’t want to go into a city and have them say they’re not ready for us,” she said.

JetBlue’s name would resurface sporadically afterward in Charleston but nothing ever materialized. The airline had moved on.

“The world changed,” said Gary Edwards, a CVB director who along with Hill is widely credited with doing much of the legwork that reeled in JetBlue. “Lots of things happened.”

The airline had “redefined itself,” Edwards continued. “It began getting success in the Caribbean, and its network plans just changed.”

The courtship began to heat up again in low-key fashion in February 2010 when Hill, Edwards and several other tourism and economic development officials met with the airline’s route planners in New York. The trip coincided with the aftermath of a huge blizzard that blanketed about half of the East Coast, recalled Mary Graham of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“I remember looking out the window of the plane and you couldn’t see anything without snow on it,” Graham said.

From then on, the Lowcountry’s relatively balmy year-round climate became part of the sales pitch. It was secondary, though, to the serious business case the region was trying to impress on JetBlue decisionmakers, Edwards said.

“We took their route map, blew it up and said, ‘We’re the logical place when you start filling out your route system between Raleigh and Jacksonville. No one else is.’ That was something that made sense to them strategically.”

The payoff

The airline made at least two visits to the Holy City, sending one executive on the first reconnaissance mission. The follow-up trip included about six JetBlue representatives, who were treated to a reception at the downtown home of well-connected New York-based public relations executive Lou Hammond.

While in town, they also met with InterTech Group CEO Anita Zucker and officials from Daniel Island-based software giant Blackbaud Inc.

“They played a role in this,” said state Rep. Chip Limehouse, chairman of the agency that owns and operates Charleston International. “They told the story of why Charleston’s a good place do business.”

The airline dispatched John Cheketts to South Carolina to officially announce the new service Wednesday. It was fitting since his father grew up on James Island, but Checketts’ role wasn’t ceremonial. He is director of route planning at JetBlue and has been studying the Charleston expansion since talks began 30 months ago.

The JetBlue brass was sold on the local job growth and population trends, among other factors, including Charleston’s 2011 ranking as the No. 1 tourist destination in North America by readers of Conde Nast magazine.

“It’s moving in the right direction,” said Checketts of the local economy. “Our customers have been clamoring for it, asking for it. It’s time.”

Put another way, it’s about time.

“It took a while, but persistence paid off,” he said.

Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.

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