With Frontier walking away and leaving JetBlue alone to pursue Spirit, it’s not immediately clear how Orlando International Airport passengers wouldn’t be losers for reduced fare competition with a completed acquisition.
Southwest Airlines remains the dominant carrier at Orlando, with about 102 daily flights expected in August. Also for the month, Spirit is the next busiest with 72 daily flights and JetBlue follows behind with an anticipated 51 daily flights.
Of the top 10 domestic destinations from Orlando, Spirit and JetBlue compete fiercely for market share for nearly half of those cities, including Newark, N.J., which is Orlando International’s busiest destination by far. For August, Spirit plans 28 flights a week to Newark and JetBlue is scheduling 40 flights a week.
For Orlando International Airport leadership, the potential merger of Spirit and JetBlue also poses potential disruption for the $3.2 billion Terminal C set to open in September.
JetBlue has long been the chosen anchor tenant for the glitzy, high-tech terminal, which is a mile south of the original terminals A and B in south Orange County. Another nine foreign carriers and a startup domestic airline also will operate out of Terminal C.
The new terminal initially will have 15 gates and an annual capacity of 12 million passengers annually. With both airlines in a growth mode, JetBlue is currently hosting nearly 5 million passengers annually, while Spirit has more than 8 million annually.
Asked how a merger of the two airlines could impact airline occupancy of Terminal C, airport leaders did not comment and instead offered an optimistic take.
“Orlando International Airport has enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial partnership with both airlines and we look forward to the potential new opportunities this merger will offer our customers,” said Kevin Thibault, chief executive officer of the airport’s operator, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.
“We are hopeful this new airline agreement, when finalized, will further our mission to provide the broadest access to Central Florida and most affordable options to the traveling public,” Thibault said.
A statement Thursday from JetBlue and Spirit said JetBlue’s takeover of Orlando’s second busiest carrier will give it new prominence. By current traffic counts, a remade JetBlue may surpass the longtime leader at Orlando International, Southwest.
“The combined airline will provide more career growth options, broader travel benefits, more opportunities to make a difference in the communities JetBlue and Spirit serve, and a deeper bench of intellectual capital to support the future growth of the airline,” the airlines said in their statement.
With the two airlines tracking toward a $3.7 billion purchase and formation of the nation’s 5th largest carrier, still to come is a determination by the federal government of whether the proposed merger would violate antitrust laws. As widely reported, the Biden administration has taken a dim view of mergers.
The fate of hundreds of weekly flights from Orlando will hang on whether JetBlue and Spirit succeed in combining.
With 43 million passengers in 2019, the nation’s peak year for air travel, JetBlue is bigger than Spirit, which carried 34 million in the same year.
But at Orlando International Airport, Spirit arrived and departed with 686,000 passengers to 47 cities in June, which was 74 percent more than JetBlue’s volume of 393,000 to 20 cities.
In all, Spirit and JetBlue are competing for passengers from Orlando to 12 cities, with a combined 339 flights a week planned for August to those destinations.
Orlando’s third busiest destination is San Juan, Puerto Rico, with Spirit scheduling 35 flights a week in August to that city and JetBlue planning 29 flights a week.
As it happens
Be the first to know with email alerts on important breaking stories from the Orlando Sentinel newsroom.
The fifth busiest is Boston, with Spirit scheduling 14 flights a week to that city in August and JetBlue posting 42.
Orlando’s eighth most popular destination is New York’s LaGuardia Airport, with Spirit scheduling 14 weekly flights and JetBlue anticipating 35 flights a week to that airport.
Beyond Orlando’s top 10 busiest destinations, the airlines battle over passengers to Hartford, Connecticut, with 14 flights each week in August by both carriers, and to Richmond, Virginia, with 7 flights a week by both, and to Salt Lake City, with 7 flights by Spirit and 5 by JetBlue each week in August.
Competition between the two airlines is particularly intense over flights to Latin America and the Caribbean.
The number of planned weekly flights in August are: 7 for both airlines to Ponce and Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; 12 by Spirit and 7 by JetBlue to Cancun, Mexico; and 7 by both airlines to San Jose, Costa Rica and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
“Bringing our two airlines together will be a game changer,” said Spirit’s chief executive officer, Ted Christie.