JetBlue Gets Political In South Florida For Spirit Merger Support

jetblue and spirit
Credit: Joe Pries

JetBlue Airways, seeking to curry political favor for its pending acquisition of South Florida-based ULCC Spirit Airlines, made significant commercial, employment, and investment announcements in Fort Lauderdale on Feb. 15.

The announcements came as JetBlue and Spirit hosted city, state, and Broward County officials at a “coming out party” type event as the airlines work to galvanize support for the merger. Senior Spirit leadership, who are based in nearby Miramar, Florida, along with JetBlue senior executives were in attendance.

This comes at a key juncture as JetBlue awaits imminent U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) decisions on two fronts: its Northeast Alliance (NEA) with American Airlines, and whether the DOJ intends to block its merger with ULCC Spirit. 

Commercially, JetBlue laid out plans to scale the combined carrier to more than 250 daily flights by 2027. JetBlue says it would offer flights to approximately 30 city pairs not served by either airline from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) today and would add more flight frequencies to about 30 additional markets. In a statement, JetBlue cited destinations such as Antigua; Belize; Cincinnati; Liberia, Costa Rica; Minneapolis; Memphis, Tennessee; and Savannah, Georgia. The airline also mooted long-haul connectivity to Europe, much as it has done in New York and Boston, once its new Airbus A321XLRs come online. 

In a political twist, the first announced new route will connect JetBlue’s Fort Lauderdale focus city with the underserved Florida state capital in Tallahassee beginning in January 2024—the first nonstop scheduled connection between the two cities in memory. American Airlines currently provides the only regular scheduled nonstop connectivity between South Florida and the capital city via its Miami hub. The Embraer E175 flights operated by American’s regional wholly owned subsidiary Envoy are confined to two frequencies per day and relatively high fares.

“We commend JetBlue for expanding and providing more direct flights between the capital and South Florida,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) said. “These new low-fare flights will further benefit Florida’s thriving economy by adding more choices for affordable air travel within the state. We look forward to JetBlue’s continued expansion in Fort Lauderdale.”

According to the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper, business officials tried to lure JetBlue six years ago with a community-led campaign called “GetBlue.” It included a $1 million funding allocation from the Florida state legislature and service guarantees through written commitments from local universities and businesses.

Spirit and JetBlue currently are ranked number one and two in market share with 27% and 19%, respectively, according to U.S. Transportation Department statistics for the year ending November 2022. The combined carriers would reach nearly 50% market share, the largest majority of any airport in either airline’s system. The NEA market-share combination is 49% at Boston Logan and 52% at New York JFK.

To allay DOJ anti-trust objections, JetBlue could offer up concessions such as surrendering gates at Fort Lauderdale, like it could for slots and gates at the constrained New York JFK and LaGuardia.

Twenty-six miles to the south at Miami International Airport (MIA), JetBlue is locked in a delicate three-way dance with American and Spirit. American dominates MIA at its fortress hub with 59%. Spirit and JetBlue—who have only served the erstwhile high-cost, formerly bereft of ULCCs airport beginning in 2020 and 2021, respectively—have emerged as players. Meanwhile, Spirit is capturing 7.5% market share, vying for number two behind Delta Air Lines. JetBlue and American are not NEA partners but rivals at Miami—with JetBlue invading key American franchises like New York, Boston and the previous monopoly to Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

JetBlue is taking great pains to downplay its potential dominance at Fort Lauderdale and, instead, play up the consumer benefit of competition at Miami International, which would benefit the South Florida region. “From Fort Lauderdale, JetBlue and Spirit currently serve 66 of the top 100 markets available from Miami International Airport today,” the airline said in a statement. “After completing its planned expansion, JetBlue would serve from Fort Lauderdale approximately 90 of the top 100 Miami markets.”

JetBlue also reaffirmed its commitment to being the anchor tenant to design and build FLL’s new five-gate Terminal Five scheduled for completion in mid-2026, as well as a new maintenance hangar.

Finally, there has been local concern over the loss of Spirit’s corporate headquarters and the associated potential loss of some of the 1,200 jobs to JetBlue’s Long Island City, New York, home base. In December 2019, Spirit announced plans for a new 500,000 ft.2 corporate campus in Dania Beach, adjacent to FLL—with occupancy scheduled for the beginning of 2024. “JetBlue will ensure a smooth transition for Spirit’s corporate Team Members by retaining a Fort Lauderdale support center (the new Dania facility), in addition to JetBlue’s other support centers,” a Spirit spokesman said in an emailed statement. A flight simulator building and residential facility are also nearing completion. 

JetBlue’s nascent TravelProducts subsidiary is already based nearby. The company briefly looked at Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, where its JetBlue University training academy is located, as candidates for relocating the corporate headquarters before recommitting to Long Island City in 2021.

To ease concerns, JetBlue declared it would add approximately 1,000 incremental new jobs at the airline’s Fort Lauderdale operations and that its no-furlough policy would ensure that current Spirit team members who wish to stay with the combined airline will have a role with JetBlue.

In a bipartisan show of support, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) said, “It’s especially encouraging that JetBlue’s growth plans will not only bring new jobs, but it will also more closely connect our community with Florida’s seat of government in Tallahassee, where more direct citizen engagement and input is always welcome.”

Chris Sloan

Chris Sloan is Air Transport World & Routes Senior Editor covering the Americas.