South Florida travelers frustrated by the limited and often expensive flight options to Orlando and Tallahassee could soon have another option for getting there.
Florida Express Jet Travel announced Monday that it plans to launch daily nonstop flights on March 20 from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando with continuing service to Tallahassee, with fares starting from $69.
Talks are ongoing with Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport officials to secure an agreement for ticket counter, terminal and scheduling for the new service, Florida Express Director of Sales Jeff Thompson told the Sun Sentinel.
As of Tuesday however, the airport had not finalized an agreement with Florida Express or approved its schedule, spokesman Greg Meyer said.
Thompson said he isn't concerned that an agreement isn't complete. He's confident they will get the space needed at FLL because there are multiple options available, including subleasing space from an existing airline that already has gates and counter space that may be underutilized.
A contract with Orlando International Airport is also pending but airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said it's not unusual for Florida Express to make the announcement prior to signing an agreement.
"We would hope that they would be able to start service," said Fennell, noting that Florida Express' proposed flight times worked for the Orlando airport. "It's an area that there is a demand for at this time."
Thompson said advance marketing and promotion of the new service is necessary to ensure sufficient sales are in place to offset its operating costs.
Economy fares for the nonstop flights are $69 one-way plus sales tax and one-stop service between Fort Lauderdale and Tallahassee Regional Airport connecting through Orlando costs $99. Business class costs $30 more.
The primary aim of the new service is to provide a cheaper alternative for road warriors that drive between the destinations, Thompson said. The target audience is business and leisure travelers, college students and alumni associations and other commuters on these routes. "Our goal is to connect people within the state and keep business and money in the state."
The Fort Lauderdale-based travel agency has contracted Swift Air, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based FAA-certified charter outfit to operate the new service using its own crew and Boeing 737-400 aircraft. The plane, which will sport Florida Express' paint scheme, will have 138 economy and 12 business seats.
With its proposed schedule, Florida Express' first flight from Fort Lauderdale is expected to depart 7 a.m. to arrive in Orlando 7:50 a.m., with continuing service to Tallahassee landing at 9:20 a.m. The last flight should leave Tallahassee 5:10 p.m. to arrive in Orlando 6 p.m. and back in Fort Lauderdale at 7:25 p.m. The travel company said it plans to operate eight daily flights between the three cities.
"Their intrastate service will give travelers an option to fly within Florida's key markets and do business around our state, Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca said in a statement.
Spirit Airlines and Silver Airways are the only carriers that operate nonstop service from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando, while no airline offers nonstop flights to Tallahassee year-round, airport officials said. Silver also offers service from West Palm Beach to Tallahassee via Orlando using its 34-seat Saab aircraft.
Fort Lauderdale to Orlando one-way fares on Spirit and Silver for March 20 were priced from $39.99 and $79 respectively, according to website checks Tuesday. Fort Lauderdale-to-Tallahassee one-way fares on Delta Air Lines started at $150 and on Silver from $154.
Delta offers seasonal nonstop service March 2 through May 10 this year through its Delta Connection carrier ExpressJet from Fort Lauderdale to Tallahassee using 50-seat regional jets, a spokesman said.
From Miami, American Airlines has nonstop service to Orlando with fares on March 20 from $171 one-way, while American Eagle Airlines' nonstop flights to Tallahassee start from $174 one-way, both inclusive of taxes, according to AA.com.
Industry specialists say Florida Express could face a problem filling its plane on these routes that have been challenged by seasonal demand or haven't been profitable for some carriers in the past.
Airlines have ceased service or cut back operations between Fort Lauderdale and Tallahassee in recent years due to consolidation and low market demand. Southwest Airlines canceled its nonstop Fort Lauderdale-Orlando route in January 2013.
"They are serving two nonstop markets with very little local demand from people who actually want to fly between each city pair," said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, a Fort Lauderdale-based industry publication.
Still Florida Express fares are attractive, and given the distance may help spur some additional people to travel, said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and strategist at Hudson Crossing in San Francisco.
Florida Express officials contend research shows a need for its service and the combination of Orlando and Tallahassee on the same routing is intended to fill the aircraft with people going to the individual destinations.
"We're offering a better way to get there and save travelers a bunch of money at the same time," Thompson said.
Orlando Sentinel Staff writer Sara K. Clarke contributed to this report.
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