Just when the term "start-up airline" was starting to sound like an oxymoron, a deep-pocketed new contender has stepped into the ring with all the swagger and charm of "Music Man" Harold Hill, and more than enough financial muscle to deliver in the clinch.

JetBlue, nee New Air, is the unlikely name of a discount airline expected to debut in January 2000 with big, comfy, leather seats, lots of legroom, overhead storage bins bigger than most New York apartments and 24 channels of satellite TV.

With $150 million in seed money and $4 billion worth of new planes on order, JetBlue already has cleared the first hurdles that trip up most newbies: insufficient capital and rickety aircraft. The big question, though, is how any start-up carrier can deliver deep discounts and stay afloat. The big boys, after all, are not about to lay down and let a rookie, no matter how well-funded, walk away with their customers.

But if they pull it off, if a start-up can give passengers a comfortable flight at a decent price, if JetBlue can let us watch satellite TV (I really like that part), then it seems that the majors have some explaining to do. Personally, I can't wait.


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