WARWICK, R.I., AND THEN LOS ANGELES — An Airbus A220-300 filled with 119 passengers and five crew made Rhode Island aviation history when it lifted off from the airport in Warwick a little after 8 a.m. on May 17.
Breeze Airways Flight 700 was, according to the state’s Airport Corporation, the first-ever commercial nonstop flight from Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport to the West Coast. When it touched down at Los Angeles International Airport about six hours later, scores of Rhode Island aviation pioneers disembarked into a bold new world of Rhode Island air travel.
Will that new world last? T.F. Green has seen routes and even whole carriers, like Frontier Airlines, come and go. The bathrooms at the airport are great, but what people would probably prefer is more nonstop options. The calculus for Rhode Island or Rhode Island-adjacent travelers is often: Logan plus traffic? Or T.F. Green, with its short security lines and cheap parking, plus a layover?
And the question for the people who run the airport corporation: What’s going to make this one stick?
Airport Corporation CEO Iftikhar Ahmad said a lot of it comes down to marketing. Recent efforts have included a plan to install enormous mockups of Rhode Island clam stuffies at airports around the country to lure people here. The airport had 21 nonstop routes in 2015, 17 in 2016, 35 in 2018, and 30 now — including, as of Wednesday, a twice-weekly route to LAX. There are more to come, the airport corporation says.
“It’s a really big deal,” Ahmad said.
The Warwick ceremony earlier this month to celebrate the launch of nonstops to Los Angeles featured free T-shirts, tote bags, and sunglasses. Though the carpet was the typical tan and brown, rather than Hollywood red, there were other signs of LA glitz: signs that said “LA Livin’” and “Beverly Hills.” A loudspeaker blared “Island in the Sun” by Weezer and “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus. There was even a local celebrity sighting at the terminal when Judge Frank Caprio appeared, known for his hit TV show, “Caught in Providence.” Caprio wasn’t on the flight, just there for the celebration, but other luminaries did get on board: a contingent of media members, Airbus and Breeze executives, and a lot of regular folks going out to California to visit loved ones or see the best coast besides Rhode Island.
Once they’d stowed their bags in the large overhead bins, the plane pulled out from the gate and was greeted by two fire trucks shooting arcs of water over it, as is tradition for an inaugural flight. Then, after a couple quick turns onto the runway, the surprisingly quiet Pratt & Whitney engines revved up and the plane was up in the partly cloudy sky, banking west.
So why shouldn’t travelers be worried that Breeze to LAX is going to go the same way other routes have gone?
“I think that Providence has had a bad relationship with a lot of airlines,” Breeze VP of marketing Angela Vargo said when the plane was cruising somewhere over the Midwest. “You can just look at the numbers alone in the market — not only are we in Providence to stay, but we have every intention of growing and doing these long-hauls. This is a six-hour flight. This is dedication.”
Breeze bills itself as a low-cost airline — albeit a “Seriously Nice” one. This reporter’s round-trip ticket for a “Nicer” fare, which included a checked bag, a carry-on, and an extra legroom seat, was $420. Currently, a barebones Breeze roundtrip ticket to LA on Aug. 16, returning Aug. 19, will set you back $290. Breeze doesn’t fly out of Boston’s Logan Airport, but if you go Spirit from Boston to LAX on the same dates, prices are listed at $358. A quick search of airline ticket costs showed similar patterns for the rest of the summer, with Breeze’s price point to LA a tick lower than you’ll find out of Boston.
(Of course, you’ll need to want to go on a Wednesday or a Saturday, when the airline has nonstop flights. On other days of the week, there’s a layover flight between PVD and LAX, where you stay on the same plane.)
Some of the ways you might notice Breeze is a low-cost airline: If there’s a problem with your flight, you can’t call for customer assistance; you can reach Breeze through social media. If you don’t have the highest-level ticket, you have to buy food and drinks, except water. Breeze avoids major airports and goes for smaller ones, like PVD, Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, and Portland International Jetport in Maine. Also, something that seems less than Nice, as WPRI recently reported: you only have an hour to report damaged luggage. Breeze President Tom Doxey, standing in the aisle en route to LA wearing one of the free shirts to commemorate the flight, said Breeze is still experimenting with how it interacts with its customers, but is going for a seamless, efficient experience.
“We’re not perfect at it yet,” Doxey said, but “I hope the experience feels elevated from what people expect from a low-cost airline.”
Some of Breeze’s planes will be kept at T.F. Green, where the airline recently opened a base of operations; it’s getting state incentives as part of its presence here. The airline is currently offering 16 destinations from Providence on its website, some of which have a stop along the way. Having a base here means Breeze employees will be based here, too. The local workforce includes flight attendants Alison O’Leary, of Warwick, and Nikita Waddy, of North Providence. Both are Rhode Islanders.
“To have a nonstop all the way across, all the way to the West Coast, is amazing for Rhode Island,” said Waddy. “It means more opportunities for us.”
As Waddy noted, getting from T.F. Green to the West Coast has meant a layover somewhere, a much longer trip. (The airport corporation says there have been some charters that have made the jaunt , but this was the first commercial flight.) Waddy had actually never been to California until that May 17 flight. She’ll now have a bit of time to explore between coast-to-coast flights.
“Connecting Los Angeles with Rhode Island — we’re getting closer together,” said O’Leary.
A few hours later, the plane sailed over the Grand Canyon, which is bigger than Rhode Island, and then approached the immensity of Los Angeles as it started to descend and land. Left from Gate 8, arrived at Gate 209. It’s a whole different world from Rhode Island, but at least for now, as O’Leary says, it is indeed a lot closer.