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Roadlife: Orlando International Airport awaits JetBlue's relocation decision

By next week, we should know whether Florida managed to pull off one of its coolest corporate relocations.

JetBlue Airways, the darling of cheap chic travelers, spent the last year deciding whether to move its headquarters — and 800 jobs — out of New York City. In the fall, the airline narrowed its choice to heading south to Orlando or staying put in the Big Apple.

The competition carries some compelling story lines. Since launching its first flight 10 years ago, JetBlue has promoted itself as New York's hometown airline, with a headquarters in Queens and a hub at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Florida also holds a place near JetBlue's heart. Flying New Yorkers to the Sunshine State has always been a big chunk of its business. So much that founder David Neeleman called Florida New York's sixth borough. JetBlue has a training center, dubbed JetBlue U, at Orlando International Airport.

Chief executive Dave Barger visited Gov. Charlie Crist in January, then ticked off the pros and cons at an impromptu news conference.

He called Orlando International "arguably one of the greatest airports in the world" and said costs were a deciding factor in the decision. On the other hand, he said, JetBlue has loyal employees in New York and a history in the city.

Of course, this wouldn't be a proper competition without taxpayer cash coming into play.

"This would be huge economic development in our state," Crist said after chatting with Barger. "There always is the chance to provide money as an inducement."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., phoned the JetBlue CEO a few days later with a new financial package from the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. No one is talking publicly about the Central Florida incentives, which are expected to be worth tens of millions of dollars, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

New York also pitched JetBlue its best offer. The city's politicians are talking tough, too. JetBlue wouldn't move until after its headquarters lease expires in 2012.

The airline is committed to making a headquarters announcement by March 31, spokesman Bryan Baldwin said. He wouldn't comment about a posting on the aviation Web site airliners.net that JetBlue told employees the decision would be made public Monday.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Roadlife: Orlando International Airport awaits JetBlue's relocation decision 03/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 12:28pm]
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