Non-stop to Puerto Rico
April 4, 2011

It’s the tail end of the morning rush hour as Jetblue’s Embraer E-190 touches down at Jacksonville International Airport. While it gently crosses the runway, photographers start to display an array of cameras for the photo-shoot. For the traffic control personnel, the aircraft is just one more landing airbus, but for the ones ready for the photo, the Jetblue Embraer E-190 is the aircraft that next May 19th will accomplish a long dream: the inaugural non-stop route Jacksonville-San Juan de Puerto Rico.

After living in Mandarin since 2005, last year Lucero Colon retuned to her hometown in Puerto Rico. “I am thrilled to know that I can wake up on a Saturday morning, jump on a plane and arrive back in Jacksonville after a three-hour flight… ready to spend the weekend with my family,” said the Boricua. “In the past, we had to travel to Orlando, and once, during the high season when flights were expensive, we had to fly to San Juan from Miami. That was a whole day of traveling.”

Lucero, her husband and their two boys left friends, a family business, and relatives behind, for a job offer in Carolina, Puerto Rico. “This route will allow us to see our friends more often, go back and forth with greater ease and at a lower cost,” said Edwin Colon. “We are extremely happy that this route has finally become a reality, there was always a lot of talk about it, but it would never materialize.” Edwin is right; the Jacksonville Aviation Authority had been working to put together a non-stop service to Puerto Rico for several years. “There is a tremendous amount of travel between Northeast Florida and Puerto Rico, but most of it goes through Orlando. Statistically, it was difficult to determine what percentage was due to Jacksonville traffic,” said Steve Grossman, JAA Chief Executive Officer and one of the main advocates of this new route. “Through the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, Sister City Association, and the Jacksonville business community, we were able to prove that there is a market for Jacksonville.

First direct service to link Jacksonville with the Caribbean
San Juan is dominated by breath-taking beauty. Twenty-four miles of white sand beaches and blue seas complete the eco paradise inhabited by pelicans and amazing marine life.

The local community is always eager to fly to Puerto Rico, not only for tourism, family or cultural ties, but for prospects of business opportunities. Last year, the trade volume between these sister cities hit the one-billion-dollar mark, and the new route is expected to help increase the numbers. The aspiration is shared by the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce of Northeast Florida, chaired by Nilda Alejandro, another mind behind the project. “Two founding objectives we set upon the creation of the chamber: the addition of San Juan as a Jacksonville sister city, and a plan to help establish direct flights to Puerto Rico,” said Alejandro who in October of 2009 saw the first objective accomplished. Nilda has been the tireless force behind the Jacksonville Puerto Rican parades, which have drawn massive audiences from both Puerto Rico and the First Coast. Alejandro was brought to the project by Jacksonville Aviation Authority’s Air trade and Marketing Manager Barbara Halverstadt.

To most, the alma mater of the project, Halverstadt has been working on the addition of the nonstop service to San Juan for almost five years. Consistent with her priority of pitching JAX for non-stop routes to high-volume destinations airports, Halverstadt was successful in rallying the interest of a large range of organizations in the local community. The Regional Chamber of Commerce along with the Hispanic and Puerto Rican local chambers of commerce, Jacksonville Mayor’s office, military bases, private companies and large corporations cooperated with her in furnishing statistics of their traveling flux between the island and the First Coast. Halverstadt could substantiate the existence of a market for this new service to operate. On October 4th, 2010, the official announcement was finally made: Starting May 19th, 2011 JetBlue will begin daily nonstop service between Jacksonville and San Juan de Puerto Rico.

Companies such as Crowley, which has about 1,200 employees in our area, has significant shipping operations in Puerto Rico. Mark Miller, Crowley Maritime Corporation’s director of Communications said his company books over 250 business trips a year to the island commonwealth.

Puerto Rico, the closest partner
The business community has always coincided in highlighting the commercial potential of the trade with Puerto Rico; now it is expected that the new route will offer promising opportunities for small businesses as well. Wilfredo Gonzalez, Small Business Administration (SBA) district director, is confident about this positive outlook. Last year, his large agency in Jacksonville contracted $414 million in businesses. “When the San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini signed the Sister City agreement with Mayor John Peyton in Jacksonville, he expressed his interest in my agency, and the hope of coordinating future activities between Puerto Rico and Northeast Florida.” Through different organizations, SBA assists individuals with their business projects free of charge. The entity offers financial advice and technical support while educating on the federal programs available. “I’m sure the convenience of the new route will inspire more entrepreneurs to do business with Puerto Rico.”

Sister Cities closer together
“This is the first regular flight between Jacksonville and one of our sister cities,” said Robert Peek, president of the Jacksonville Sister Cities Association and member of Jaxport. “We do more business with Puerto Rico than anywhere else in the world.” According to Peek, there’s substantial non-port related growth and other opportunities, which have not been tapped into yet, due to a lack of a direct air link.

Puerto Rico is a remarkable Island to visit. “With its European influence and English speaking locals, the Island is easy to get around. I’m confident that we will be able fly to San Juan for the same price as any continental city. And we will make this a preferred destination for folks on the First Coast.”

We Are All Crew Members:
Let’s demonstrate that we can support this route,” said Mateo Lleras, JetBlue communications manager, while explaining the comparative benefits offered by his airline. Embraer E-190 has 100 seats measuring 3 inches more than a regular seat. To amuse Latinos, TV programming such as Univision, GolTV, and Spanish language movies are featured. To top the homely Latino ambiance JetBlue offers fried plantains and Cerveza Presidente onboard.

“Bring Humanity Back to Air Travel has been our founding premise and it has paid off in 6 consecutive Best Customer Service awards,” said Lleras.