The chief executive of JetBlue Airways was greeted like a head of state when he touched down at Worcester Regional Airport Wednesday morning to announce that the airline would offer the first passenger service from the beleaguered airport in more than a year.
A marching band, police honor guard, and political leaders — including Governor Deval Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray — braved a bone-chilling wind to greet JetBlue head David Barger and his entourage when they stepped off the plane. Inside, throngs of business and community leaders, as well as Finz, the mascot for the Worcester Sharks hockey team, cheered inside an otherwise empty terminal.
The enthusiasm was for more than the two flights daily — one to Orlando, the other to Fort Lauderdale — the airline will start flying on 100-seat planes on Nov. 7. It was also for the hope that JetBlue’s service would help revitalize an airport that has repeatedly lost passenger service in part because of its poor location, outdated landing systems, and foggy weather. The airport is also losing its air traffic controllers as part of federal budget cuts, meaning JetBlue pilots will have to coordinate takeoffs and landings without the help of controllers.
Dimitri Andre, who works at the airport’s Thrifty car rental counter, has seen the effects of airlines coming and going on business, as well as on the city.
“Having a city that has an airport, it legitimizes Worcester as a real All-America City,” said Andre, 28. “Some of my friends don’t even know we have a Worcester airport.”
The Massachusetts Port Authority, which acquired the airport from Worcester in 2010, is pouring tens of millions of dollars into the airport and working to attract new service. JetBlue already has a loyal following in Boston, carrying a quarter of the airport’s passengers, and a much more robust operation than its immediate predecessor in Worcester, Direct Air, a charter airline that shut down abruptly last year. Still, aviation analysts are skeptical that the airport will generate enough passengers to be self-sustaining.
“Worcester is kind of trapped by history and geography,” said Daniel Kasper, an aviation consultant at Compass Lexecon in Boston, noting it is within an hour of bigger airports in Boston, Hartford, Providence, and Manchester. “Most places in the country, driving an hour to get to the airport — particularly when you’re going to resort destinations like Florida — wouldn’t be considered a deterrent to travel.”
Moreover, JetBlue is adding service at a time when nearby airports are losing passengers. TF Green near Providence lost 21 percent of its traffic between 2008 and 2012, while Manchester was down 32 percent during that time.
Logan International Airport in Boston, on other hand, has seen a 4 percent increase in passengers during that time, hitting a record 29.3 million travelers in 2012.
Worcester has long struggled to maintain airline service. In 2001, the airport had four commercial carriers: Delta Connection, American Eagle, US Airways Express, and Pan Am. By 2003, they were all gone. When Direct Air started flying out of Worcester in 2008, it had not had regularly scheduled service for two years.
Passenger traffic in Worcester peaked in 1989 at 354,000. In 2011, only 107,434 passengers flew in and out of the airport.
Massport has spent nearly $9 million in runway maintenance, heating and air conditioning systems, and terminal upkeep at the airport, and has committed about $32 million to construct a parallel taxiway and install a new instrument landing system that will allow planes to land in the lowest levels of visibility. It is also giving JetBlue a $275,000 break on airport fees and charges for two years, and $150,000 worth of free marketing, a tactic commonly used at Logan to attract international carriers.
“The fact the Commonwealth is now involved with Massport here, it’s an absolute home run,” Barger said.
Massport last year brought in Rectrix Aviation, a private jet charter company based at Hanscom Field in Bedford, to provide maintenance, fueling, and other services to general aviation aircraft at Worcester. Rectrix has committed to investing $5 million at the airport for office space and hangars to accommodate large corporate jets.
JetBlue plans to be in Worcester for the long term, Barger said, and intends to add more flights, more destinations, and bigger planes.
JetBlue’s flights from Logan to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale have been performing well, the airline said, prompting it to bump up capacity last summer 11 and 21 percent, respectively. So it expects those destinations to be popular in Worcester, too.
“Everybody retires to Florida,” said Fran Nase, an Avon district sales manager and ambassador for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.
But Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the trade publication Airline Weekly, noted that JetBlue might be trying to “make lemonade” out of the small, less efficient Embraer E190 aircraft it will use in Worcester but cannot fly in bigger markets.
And Joe Cutroni, a local businessman who was at the airport for the announcement, was not ready to jump on the JetBlue bandwagon.
“We’ve seen it all before,” Cutroni said.