JetBlue Airways brought the quick hop to Mexico back to Tampa International Airport on Thursday.
Passengers headed to Cancun, the beach and party resort on the Yucatan Peninsula, nibbled on Mexican food as a mariachi band played at their gate. For airport officials, the flight was serious business — a rare international nonstop for Tampa International.
"This is all local traffic," said Louis Miller, the airport's executive director. "People from Cancun aren't coming here. That's why it's important that the local community support it. If this doesn't work, it's scary."
JetBlue is starting slowly. The airline will make one round-trip flight per day with its smallest jet, the 100-seat Embraer 190. Eighty-five passengers left on Thursday's first flight. Bookings for the next few days average 80 passengers per trip, plenty for JetBlue to make money, said Linda Meech, the airline's Tampa station manager.
"It's profitable when the plane is half-full," she said. "It's a market we've got to grow a little."
Kevin and Jacki Transue of Spring Hill called the new flight a godsend. The couple own a house in Cozumel, an island near Cancun, and flies there once every few months.
That used to mean an all-day journey requiring a connecting flight in Fort Lauderdale or Miami. Now, it's less than two hours in the air. "We'll be on the beach by 1 o'clock," Jacki Transue said.
Northwest Airlines stopped its Tampa-Cancun route in 2000. AirTran Airways scrapped plans to fly the route in 2005 after Hurricane Wilma battered the resort city. Spirit Airlines tried once-weekly flights but gave up after a month and a half.
JetBlue is advertising one-way fares as low as $94, taxes and fees not included, on its Web site. Travelers said Thursday they paid about $300 total for round-trip fares.
Tampa International's menu of nonstop international destinations is thin: London, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and the Cayman Islands. Miller said officials are targeting a new route to San Jose in Costa Rica, resumption of service to Nassau, Bahamas, and another flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.