Ten years after taking its first flight out of Boston, JetBlue Airways has gone from “Jet who,” as chief executive Dave Barger puts it, to the dominant airline at Logan International Airport.
The airline flew nearly 8 million customers out of Boston last year and is adding its 50th destination out of Logan this week. By comparison, the second-biggest carrier at Logan, the now-merged American Airlines and US Airways, carried 6.8 million passengers out of Boston last year.
This summer, JetBlue will take over all 24 gates in Terminal C. But being a major carrier in the Northeast means dealing with congested airspace and winter storms, and JetBlue took a beating during the storms in early January.
The airline canceled 1,800 flights over a six-day period and eventually shut down its New York and Boston operations for 17 hours, leaving thousands of people stranded for up to a week.
“We absolutely had our nose bloodied,” said Barger, who was at Blu restaurant near the Theater District — yes, chosen for the name — on Monday, his 56th birthday, to promote the airline’s decade in Boston.
The problems caused by the winter weather, including pilots exceeding regulatory limits on working hours while they waited to take off, will probably lead to more aggressive “pre-cancellations,” or cutting flights before a storm hits, Barger said.
JetBlue, founded in 1999, launched Boston service in January 2004, with one gate serving five cities. The airline expanded quickly, capitalizing on Logan’s lack of low-cost carriers and passengers’ love of seat-back TVs.
Over its 15 years, JetBlue learned that to be competitive, it couldn’t remain the no-frills, economy-only domestic carrier it set out to be. The carrier has added dozens of international destinations, mainly in the Caribbean. This summer, it will add a premium cabin with lie-flat seats on its New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco flights. JetBlue is also rolling out WiFi on its planes, one of the last carriers to do so.
“You had two choices: Get in big, or get out. So we made the decision to get in big,” said Barger, adding that lie-flat seats will likely be added to Boston flights as well.
JetBlue partners with a number of international airlines, including Japan Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and Hainan Airlines, which recently started or plan to start service in Boston.
In conjunction with the upcoming Emirates flight from Boston to Dubai, starting March 10, JetBlue is launching service from Boston to Detroit — Barger’s hometown and home to a thriving Middle Eastern population — which will help fill the Emirates flight out of Logan.
When JetBlue takes over Terminal C (continuing to rent out one gate to Cape Air), the airline plans to redesign the check-in area, removing the old United counter and wall in front of the security lanes. The airline also plans to install self-service baggage check machines that allow passengers to weigh their own suitcases and print their own tags.
JetBlue has also expanded its presence elsewhere in New England in recent years, adding service in Providence in 2012 and Worcester last year. The airline flies out of eight New England airports in all, including seasonal service to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
The Manchester, N.H., airport, however, is “not on our short-term list right now,” Barger said.
The growth hasn’t all gone smoothly. In the airline’s first month of service in Worcester, JetBlue canceled nearly 15 percent of its flights and diverted five planes to Logan, mostly due to the Worcester airport’s infamous fog. Massport plans to install navigational equipment that will allow planes to land in lower visibility conditions, but this would not happen for several years.
The Worcester service remains challenging, Barger said, but the airline probably won’t assess the route’s profitability until it’s been flying it for at least two years. Barger is confident that JetBlue can succeed where others haven’t, but he knows there are limits.
“The number one lesson we learned” over the years, he said: “Mother Nature, she’ll win.”