New England's Second City Tries To Land JetBlue With Video Pitch
08/21/2012| 04:09pm US/Eastern
By Jon Kamp
If JetBlue Airways Corp. (>> JetBlue Airways Corporation) ever lands in Worcester, Mass., it will be because the discount carrier sees some untapped potential in New England's second-largest city.
But the promise to "kick Klingon butt" can't hurt.
The Star Trek reference came in one of roughly four-dozen videos locals posted online--most with more straightforward pitches--to lure the airline to an airport that currently has no commercial flights. JetBlue hasn't made any commitment, and has previously cited drawbacks like the need for upgraded systems, but Chief Executive Dave Barger is heading to Worcester nonetheless to hear from local officials Wednesday.
His airline also joined the fun by making its own video, which makes light of the city's hard-to-pronounce name. The videos are part of a contest launched by airport fan Bill Randell, who is co-founder of a local benefits-management group that put up $2,000 for the winning effort.
"We heard there's a video contest to convince JetBlue to come to Worcester," the airline said in its entry. "As a value airline, we figured we could put the cash prize to good use."
It turns out JetBlue isn't eligible for prize money, Randell decided, and the same rules apply for Worcester's mayor and city manager. They made a video in which they ride a baggage conveyor belt and tout the "city on the move," riffing on a light-hearted JetBlue video in which Mr. Barger rides prostrate through an x-ray scanner. There also won't be any cash prize for Mr. Randell's eight-year old daughter, who sang an ode to Mr. Barger while posing around the terminal building.
Another entry features a family of nine explaining they're ready to spend on travel but don't like taking two cars 45 miles east to fly from Boston. Another highlights the city's history as a one-time industrial powerhouse while ticking off manufacturing firsts, including the monkey wrench and steam calliope. The contest will be decided Wednesday.
Despite the charm offensive, Worcester's airport still faces plenty of hurdles. Perched on a fog-challenged hill on the city's outskirts, miles from the nearest highway, the airport has long struggled to keep its gates full. Worcester hasn't had any commercial flights since March, when discount airline Direct Air filed for bankruptcy and abruptly suspended service, and the city of 181,000 residents didn't have an airline for two years before Direct Air arrived in 2008.
The airport's busiest year--1989, when 355,000 passengers passed though a small, old terminal--came four years before the city opened a new $15.7 million building amid pressure from the local business community. "It was 'build it and they will come,'" said Konstantina Lukes, a long-time city councilor and former mayor.
Airlines have come, but they don't stay, and Ms. Lukes placed some of the blame on poor access from the local interstate. In the meantime, Worcester's central-Massachusetts location has meant relatively short drives to other New England cities with less compromised airports, Ms. Lukes said, including Boston and Providence, R.I. JetBlue has grown quickly to become the busiest airline in Boston and recently announced it would start flying later this year between Providence and Florida.
Building a new airport road always has been controversial because it could threaten dense city neighborhoods. Worcester is working on low-impact measures, such as improved signage, left-turn lanes and making surface streets faster, City Manager Michael O'Brien said.
Mr. Barger touched on Worcester's challenges nearly a year ago, when talking to reporters at a luncheon in Boston, including the need for upgraded infrastructure. "It gets a little foggy up there," he said.
The Massachusetts Port Authority is considering a new navigation system that would allow zero-visibility landing, although no firm decisions have been made. The agency, known as Massport, bought the airport in 2010 and is investing $9 million in other improvements over the next year or so, spokesman Richard Walsh said. Massport is also putting up financial incentives for new airlines such as waivers on terminal fees for up to two years.
Mr. Walsh noted Direct Air boasted more than 107,000 total passengers on well-filled flights in Worcester last year, and said that airline's financial problems didn't reflect the market. Mr. O'Brien had a similar message, and he said local political and business leaders will press their case with Mr. Barger Wednesday.
The CEO wasn't available for comment, but JetBlue spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said he was heading to the meeting in Worcester because of "our strong relationship with Massport."
News of the visit emerged July 31, when Mr. Barger tipped off his plans via Twitter. He was responding to a tweet from Mr. Randell--the local insurance salesman and airport booster--who offered congratulations for winning an award.
As JetBlue noted on its own blog, Mr. Barger's friendly Twitter habits have set off new-destination speculation before, but may not predict JetBlue's plans. Nevertheless, Mr. Randell is hopeful the airline will pick his hometown.
"The city of Worcester could use a win," he said.
Write to Jon Kamp at email@example.com
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