Tucson Scores Nonstop Flights to JFK Airport

By David Pittman –

American Airlines Service Starts Oct. 6

Oct. 6 is cause for celebration in Tucson. That’s when daily, nonstop commercial airline flights begin connecting Tucson International Airport and New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The new American Airlines nonstop service allows Tucson to shed the unwanted distinction of being the largest city in the U.S. without a nonstop flight to the Big Apple.

Top local government leaders and officials from the Tucson Airport Authority, the Tucson Metro Chamber and Visit Tucson are enthusiastically spreading the news.

“It is the most exciting air service news this region has had in many years,” said Bonnie Allin, president and CEO of the Tucson Airport Authority, at a May airport news conference in which participants eschewed ribbon cutting in favor of simultaneously taking bites from multiple large, ruby red apples. “Let’s keep this momentum going and make sure the flight is a success,” she said. “Now there is nothing stopping you when you fly Tucson to New York.”

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said this news of renewed commercial air service between Tucson and New York is just the latest in a series of phenomenal economic development stories benefiting the Old Pueblo – citing Caterpillar’s decision to locate a regional headquarters downtown, the opening of a large call center operation by Comcast and a new West Coast distribution center by HomeGoods and the announcement that professional hockey was coming to the newly renovated Tucson Arena.

Rothschild said creation of the Tucson to New York air route “connects us to the northeastern United States and Europe” and “will increase the opportunity for people on the East Coast to get out to Tucson – whether it’s for business, conventions or tourism – and that is incredibly significant for us.” The mayor said daily flights to and from Tucson and New York were “both needed and very welcome.”

Tucson last had nonstop flights to JFK in 2008 when JetBlue shut down its late-night service in May of that year. Tony Finley, chairman of the TAA and CFO of Long Companies, is especially pleased the new flight from Tucson to New York “is not a red-eye” but an early morning flight that will provide convenient access to European flights from JFK. Indeed, connecting destinations beyond New York served by American Airlines include Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Zurich, Milan, Dublin, Ireland, London, even Doha, Qatar.

Flights will depart Tucson at 7:57 a.m. and arrive in New York at 4 p.m. Return flights will depart JFK at 5 p.m. and arrive in Tucson at 8:12 p.m. Flights will be aboard 160-passenger Boeing 737-800 aircraft featuring 16 recliner seats in first class, 30 main cabin seats with extra legroom, and 114 coach seats.

Tucson Metro Chamber President and CEO Michael Varney said the new air route will bolster both business and tourism from the Northeast to Tucson and “open doors to more commerce in our region.”

Speaker after speaker at the news conference announcing the Tucson-New York connection praised the Chamber for the key role it played in making the new air service a reality. The Chamber not only worked more than 18 months to build public support and push the new route among airlines, but it also secured financial backing from more than 46 local businesses and organizations to create a $3 million revenue guarantee package that ensures American Airlines profitability over the first two years of operation. The new route would not have happened without that guarantee.

Varney credited Bill Assenmacher, who volunteered to head the Chamber’s Air Service Task Force, for leading the successful effort.

“Bill and his team worked tirelessly on this project. He was the ‘maniac on a mission’ and he got it done,” said Varney. “The local businesses and organizations that stepped up to create the revenue guarantee deserve everyone’s gratitude. It’s amazing what we can do when the entire community works together.”

It was Assenmacher who announced at the news conference that Tucson was “lucky enough to get our favorite airline, American Airlines, to start new daily service from Tucson to New York City.” As he completed those words, red, white and blue balloons were raced to the front of the room as a recording of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” was played.

Assenmacher said the best part about the $3 million revenue guarantee is that it serves as “a backstop” and if the route proves profitable over its first two years, which appears quite likely, American Airlines would not tap into the fund and the money would be returned to donors.

Data gathered by airline consultants working for TIA and the Chamber indicate there is sufficient market demand to make the Tucson to New York connection highly profitable.

“More than 225 people a day are currently traveling from the Tucson metro area to New York City,” Assenmacher said. “They are either taking a connecting flight or they are driving to Phoenix and flying from Sky Harbor Airport. All the statistics point to the fact that there is demand for this flight.”

Allin said “federal regulations limit what airports are allowed to offer for incentive programs.” She said revenue guarantees, such as the one led by the Chamber’s Air Service Task Force, not only provide needed financial assurances, but also “show airlines that we have a business community that is supportive of improved air service.”

The new flight, which increases the number of nonstop destinations from TIA to 18, allows American Airlines to qualify for as much as $550,000 in additional incentives through landing-fee waivers, terminal rent reductions and money for marketing from TIA.

Establishing new service each way from New York to Tucson is costly. Last year it was estimated that a single round-trip flight would cost the airline $45,200. That places the annual cost of operating the route at about $16.3 million.

Brent DeRaad, president and CEO of Visit Tucson, called the announcement of daily commercial flights from TIA to New York City “a great day for Tucson and Southern Arizona. Based on customer spending, New York is already our top market for leisure travel. But regrettably, New York has also been our number one market for lost meetings business, due, in part, to the lack of daily nonstop, round-trip service between Tucson and New York. That’s why Tucson lost nearly $15 million over the last three years in meetings-related opportunities. We are certainly eager to begin turning that around very shortly.”

DeRaad said Visit Tucson would begin marketing the new flight route to New Yorkers this summer. “We will be doing everything in our power to try to bring in new customers, not only from New York, but European travelers as well.”

American Airlines’ history in Tucson dates back to 1927 when one of its predecessors, Standard Airways, flew the first commercial flights into Southern Arizona from Los Angeles. Today, American accounts for more than 36 percent of passenger enplanements at TIA with an average of 21 flights a day to Chicago O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

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