When JetBlue Airways announced in September that it would start service out of Charleston at the end of February, Lynette Harrison was one of the first to book a flight to New York.
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She jumped at the chance to reserve seats on the discounted inaugural flights for herself and her husband, James, so they could celebrate her birthday on Saturday and the birthday of her daughter, Tanesha Williams, who lives in New York, on Sunday.
“I am so excited,” she said while walking to the JetBlue gate Thursday morning. “We are going to have a birthday weekend.”
The low-cost carrier landed in Charleston Thursday for the first time to a greeting its chief operating officer said he had never experienced.
Water cannons, flappers doing the Charleston dance and a throng of dignitaries and onlookers welcomed the New York-based air carrier to the Holy City.
Even a rainbow greeted the first JetBlue flight to Charleston under a cloudless sky.
As the inaugural flight taxied to the gate after touching down on the runway at 9:39 a.m., opposing fire trucks created a tunnel of water to welcome the airline to Charleston. A rainbow then appeared in the spray as the sun splashed down on the blue and white aircraft, where pilots later hoisted South Carolina and U.S. flags from the cockpit as it rolled to the gate.
“Coming to Charleston after one of the wettest months in history and with no clouds in the sky, they still pulled off a rainbow,” said Andy Savage, chairman of Charleston County Aviation Authority.
“The reception is unlike anything we have seen,” JetBlue COO Rob Maruster said. “Good things come to those who wait.”
He was referring to the nearly three-year local effort to land the carrier in Charleston, and the fact that the Holy City was on the original list of cities to be served in the late 1990s when JetBlue was conceived.
“We think this is an underserved market,” Maruster said.
The airline brings three flights daily, with two to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and one to Boston’s Logan International Airport.
JetBlue will begin offering a fourth flight from Charleston to Boston on Saturdays only starting April 6, and Maruster alluded to the addition of future flights.
“I have no doubt this will be a larger growth story for Charleston,” he said.
JetBlue pilot Johnny Johnson was as excited as anyone with the new routes. The Mount Pleasant resident has been hitching a ride on Delta or other airlines in Charleston for years to his base in New York and is looking forward to flying out of Charleston on JetBlue.
He even brought his vanity “JetBlue” license plate to the celebration after unscrewing it from the back of his 1957 Chevrolet pickup truck.
“When I started working for this company 10 years ago, I knew they were great people and I wanted to be a part of it,” Johnson said while surrounded by some of the 20 other JetBlue pilots who live in the Charleston area. “I will be with JetBlue forever.”
Airport and tourism officials are giddy over the new routes because they offer direct access to the heavily populated Northeast corridor and provide direct links for international passengers looking to explore Charleston.
“It will help us attract visitors from these important markets,” Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said.
The new routes also will provide another avenue to people with permanent homes in Charleston who fly to New York weekly and open up Boston and its high-tech companies with direct flights from Charleston for the first time, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said.
He also noted that Charleston International has added 500,000 new flight seats at the airport during the past two years with the addition of Southwest Airlines, which started service in March 2011, and now JetBlue.
“The golden gem has now been discovered,” said Duane Parrish, director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism for South Carolina. “JetBlue is giving people more opportunities to discover that gem.”