JetBlue flights to Boston, NYC from Savannah begin Thursday

JetBlue Airways will fly for the first time into Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport on Thursday morning, beginning daily nonstop service to Boston and New York City.

The low-cost carriers' new flights to and from Boston's Logan International and New York City's John F. Kennedy International airports have excited Savannah airport officials and Hilton Head Island business leaders because affordable air service has returned to the Lowcountry, they say.

"Any time you can provide the flying public -- residents or visitors -- an option of high-value air service, that's always a positive," Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce president Bill Miles said Wednesday.

Ticket prices at the Savannah airport have soared in recent years as carriers such as Delta Air Lines reduced flights and low-cost airline AirTran Air Ways pulled out in 2008.

Airfare averaged $493 a ticket in the first quarter of last year, tying with Washington Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., for the third-highest average ticket price in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation and OAG Aviation Worldwide statistics.

But the addition of JetBlue has already softened the hefty prices, airport director Greg Kelly said. Airfare is down 10 to 30 percent since the carrier signed on in the fall. The decline is particularly marked for flights by other carriers to New York City, where JetBlue will fly twice daily, he said.

Other airlines are adding flights to the Big Apple, as well. Delta, for example, has opened two more flights, Kelly said.

"This is something we've been working on for several years, trying to get an additional low-cost carrier down here since AirTran left," Kelly said. "Our number of seats went down significantly, so we definitely needed to add more service."

Tickets for the new flights were priced between $170 and $209 Wednesday afternoon, according to the carrier's website.

Chamber officials hope cheaper service to the airport means more visitors to Hilton Head. The organization has invested $100,000 as part of a marketing campaign that puts JetBlue and familiar images of the island before readers' eyes in the New York Post and The Boston Globe. It also has placed advertisements on hundreds of taxis in both cities and has pledged similar funds for broadcast and search-engine advertising in the Northeast this spring.

"JetBlue understands that 48 percent of fliers landing at the airport are coming to the island, ... and their marketing reflects that," Miles said in a newsletter to chamber members, citing an airport study.

Brian Bell, a JetBlue pilot who will captain the first flight Thursday from Boston to Savannah, said that number could increase.

"There's always been a draw down here," said Bell, a Hilton Head Island resident who has flown for JetBlue for eight years. "People have been waiting a long time, and I'm really excited about it."