WILLEMSTAD, Curacao — JetBlue's addition of a daily roundtrip flight between Fort Lauderdale and Barbados in April "is a perfect example of a true partnership with the tourism ministry, the airport and local hoteliers," said Robin Hayes, JetBlue's president and CEO.
The carrier launched Barbados service from JFK in 2009; nonstop seasonal service from Boston and Saturday Mint service from JFK begin Nov. 7.
"Four major carriers now command 80% of the U.S. market. JetBlue, on the other hand, remains a bit of an underdog with just 5% of the market," Hayes said, in his keynote speech at the Caribbean Tourism Organization's annual State of the Industry Conference here this week.
That "underdog" began life with a flight from New York to Florida in 2000 and launched its Caribbean service two years later from New York to San Juan, followed by the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas in 2004.
"I don't think anyone could have predicted how quickly our Caribbean growth would accelerate and how significant this part of the world would become to our network in the ensuing years," Hayes said.
Robin Hayes Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
JetBlue now serves 27 airports from Bermuda to Barbados and Grand Cayman to Grenada. Antigua comes online on Nov. 7.
The carrier flies 150 flights a day into the Caribbean and Latin America from the U.S.
Markets in the Caribbean and Latin America now account for one-third of the carrier's current capacity.
Growth has resulted from Open Skies agreements, "which allow us to freely add flights and give consumers choices," according to Hayes.
Partnerships with regional carriers have spurred JetBlue's growth, including its recent codeshare agreement with Seaborne Airlines, announced this week.
The carrier does not serve every Caribbean destination yet, "but we do serve Cuba, one of the hottest topics of the tourism trade. Ever since the U.S. and Cuba eased regulations earlier this year, I'm asked when will we start flying there," Hayes said.
In fact, the carrier has been there since 2011 with charter flights from Florida and, as of this past summer, from New York.
"This has given us a leg up when our countries sign an aviation treaty that will pave the way for scheduled service," Hayes said, but reassured his audience that the carrier's growth in Cuba will not come at the expense of other islands.
"The Cuban market is sure to significantly expand once regularly scheduled flights from the U.S. begin, but we're not going to pick up all our planes and move them to Cuba."
Cuba's infrastructure needs to support any influx of tourists "are massive. It's going to be a long time before Cuba's full potential is realized," Hayes said.
In the meantime, JetBlue will focus on expansion in the region where opportunity lies, including new markets, which the CEO would not identify until all agreements are signed, and will add frequencies and larger aircraft in markets such as Montego Bay and Punta Cana.
The carrier will bring the A321 aircraft to Haiti next year and increase its Haiti flights from Boston, New York and Fort Lauderdale in response to growing demand.
"We will increase our service to Haiti by more than 50,000 seats, an increase of 80% since we entered that market two years ago," Hayes said.
In 2016, JetBlue will add 10 new aircraft to its fleet and another 10 in 2017.
"We need places to point all those planes and a lot of them are coming south to the Caribbean," he said.
JetBlue adds capacity when fares creep up, according to Hayes.
"Haiti is a good example of this. By offering more seats, we can offer more low fares and support tourism growth. This is different to the traditional legacy model of keeping fares high," he said.
JetBlue plans to add a third weekly flight from New York to Curacao late next year.
Curacao service started in December 2014, "but the island has proven to be a big hit with our customers.
JetBlue has succeeded in places "where our legacy competitors had become a bit too complacent and we've built new markets that had never been flown before," Hayes said.