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Swine flu concerns push JetBlue to cut some Tampa-to-Cancún flights

Billboards promoting Tampa International's newest international destination declare: Yes You Can-Cun. But for most of the next week you Can-Not.

JetBlue scratched the daily Cancún flight — the airport's only nonstop to Mexico — from Monday to Friday this week, from Sunday through Tuesday and on May 19. Not surprisingly, demand fell off a cliff with all the headlines about Mexico's swine flu epidemic.

Flying empty jets is a luxury airlines can't afford for long. Delta, Continental and United, all with far more Mexico flights than JetBlue, have slashed schedules to match diminished passenger traffic.

But JetBlue's cancellations are particularly worrisome for Tampa International. The airport has few nonstop international destinations. Take away Canada and there are exactly three: London, Grand Cayman and, since December, Cancún.

Criticism over the thin international schedule has dogged airport officials for years. Airlines prefer to funnel them through international gateways like Miami, Atlanta and Orlando.

So, landing Cancún was a big deal. Along with Mexico and Cancún tourist boards, Tampa International hosted a big dinner for travel agents and is kicking in $10,000 for 22 billboards.

Will it be enough? JetBlue flies once daily with its smallest jet, a 100-seat Embraer 190. The airline could still make money with the plane half full, station manager Linda Meech said in December. Bookings so far have been "okay," said Trudy Carson, the airport's airline recruiter.

JetBlue called the cancellations "totally temporary.'' Besides the nine local flights to Cancún, the airline scratched 13 from its hub at New York's John F. Kennedy International (where it flies two or three 150-seat jets daily) and two from Boston.

Agents offered to switch Tampa customers to the daily flight from Orlando, which flew without interruption.

• • •

Some good news for travelers who complain that it costs more to fly to Tallahassee than across the Atlantic: Maybe it's the return of competition or the end of the legislative session. But fares to the state capital are coming back to earth.

Continental Connection had round-trip fares as low as $219, taxes and fees included, for travel starting this month. Delta Connection matched that in early June. Web sites such as Orbitz.com and FareCompare.com were advertising Continental Connection for $179, all in.

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

Swine flu concerns push JetBlue to cut some Tampa-to-Cancún flights 05/05/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 5, 2009 9:41pm]

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