Green eyed as operations base

Posted 5/18/22


This was like few other airport announcements, because it wasn’t billed as an announcement.

The cameras and reporters were there, but a lineup of officials to welcome the …

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Green eyed as operations base



This was like few other airport announcements, because it wasn’t billed as an announcement.

The cameras and reporters were there, but a lineup of officials to welcome the man the media was there to hear was missing Friday. 

“David’s over there,” said Ifikhar Ahmad, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Corporation, pointing to a tall, white hair man in a rumpled gray suit leaning on a credenza sipping black coffee from a paper cup.

David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue who sold the company and went on to start Breeze Airways appeared in no rush to get things started. The “news” that the airline would commence non-stop service to five destinations starting this and next month had been announced in March. 

But now the founder and president of the airlines was here in person.

Neeleman was open to chitchat and answering questions one on one and later when facing the cameras.

Why Rhode Island? What brought Breeze here?

Having lived in Connecticut (he and his wife raised their 10 children in the Nutmeg State) he said he likes this part of the country. Later he delved into the market numbers and the opportunities, but first he likes Rhode Island.

“I love everything (about New England) but the Patriots,” Neeleman told reporters.  There were laughs and nods of understanding. Neeleman’s nephew, Zack Wilson, was drafted No. 2 in 2021 by the New York Jets.

By the time the interview was over, Neeleman confirmed reports the airline would likely pick Green as one of six operation bases across the country. That would be a first in the 91-year history of the airport.

Ahmad said no airline has used Rhode Island as a base of operation. Needleman was cautious not to interchange base of operations and hub. As a base of operation, planes would be stationed here — probably starting with four — meaning they would “sleep here” overnight and be ready first thing in the morning. It could also mean a dramatic increase in daily flights from Green – as much as 20 – and non-stop service to new destinations.

Neeleman spoke without notes about the possibility of delays in scheduled new service including Green’s first non-stop flight to Los Angeles. He said 80 pilots have completed training and the planes are ready and waiting, but that staff shortages and absences caused by illnesses has left the FAA with only one inspector capable of signing off on the planes.

He couldn’t say how long certification could take, “it is in the FAA’s hands,” he said.  The airline has delayed until June non-stop service to Jacksonville that was to have started this month, due to a shortage of planes.

Although he didn’t disclose bookings to LAX , Neeleman is encouraged that the 36 first class seats on the inaugural flight were rapidly snapped up. He said the airline would give the service six months to a year to develop a market. Studies show there’s demand for the non-stop service to Los Angeles, Ahmad said. He added that 50 percent of passengers flying to Los Angeles out of Boston are driving past Green to get to Boston.

Neeleman couldn’t imagine why non-stop LAX wouldn’t be a success, “when you get people there twice as fast and at half the cost.”

Ahmad said RIAC was talking with Neeleman when he was exploring the viability of creating the airline in early 2020, only at that time it was going to be named “Moxy.”

The airline’s name was changed to “Breeze” when it was discovered the proposed name conflicted with an existing hotel chain. Despite the name switch, the strategy stayed the same — an airline offering low cost point-to-point fares and adjusting to demand.

Neeleman looks to keep costs down, a point he illustrated when an unnamed airport courting the airline unrolled a $40 million addition to accommodate them. Neeleman was not interested realizing that the airport was looking to Breeze to pay the tab through its lease. 

Ahmad said Green has ample space for Breeze.  Ahmad said that Green’s cost per passenger, which is calculated by dividing airline costs at Green by the number of enplanements (act or process of boarding an aircraft) is between $6.50 and $7 — where that number is about four times that at Boston.  It’s what Neeleman is looking for.

According to airline industry publications, Neeleman aims to keep costs down with efficient operations such as  customer apps that reduce the need for representatives and leasing 118-seat Embraer E195 jets from Azul (a Brazilian airline Neeleman founded) as well as 108-seat E190s from Nordic Aviation Capital, giving the fledging airline a fleet of 18 planes.  Leasing the aircraft avoided delays in delivery without incurring debt. Also in 2020 he agreed to purchase 60 new Airbus A220-300 jets; each holds 160 passengers.

Neeleman offered a mini course in the economics of fuel costs. Although the per barrel cost of oil has gone up in proportionally small increments, he said the refined fuel cost has gone from $20 to $70 a barrel, forcing the airlines to bump up fares. He said the airlines have bumped fares to cover the cost.

“It’s all just math,” he said.

The numbers at Green are soaring.

In the midst of the pandemic, Ahmad forecast it could take 10 years before 2019 levels of traffic — about 4 million enplaning and arriving passengers — returned.

He said the airport had seven airlines offering non-stop service to 17 destinations in 2016. Today 11 airlines are providing non-stop service to 33 destinations.

Passenger growth has been on a steady dramatic climb. In February 2022, 208,747 passengers — arrivals and departures — were recorded, a 158 percent increase from February 2021, and 79 percent of the total for February 2019. March traffic totaled 285,155, a 112 percent increase from 2021 and 83 percent of 2019 traffic.

Ahmad sees opportunity for additional growth.

“This is not the time to take the foot off the gas,” he said.

By this point the room had cleared of cameras and reporters. Neeleman was still there. He was seated with airport and Breeze staff taking a lunch break with an innovator in the airline industry.

Breeze Airways began flying from Rhode Island in the summer of 2021 and currently offers three non-stop destinations from PVD, including service to Charleston, SC (CHS), Norfolk, VA (ORF) and Pittsburgh, PA (PIT).

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