PORTLAND — JetBlue Airways’ ongoing expansion in Boston is bound to siphon off some southern Maine passengers from the Portland International Jetport, the airline’s president and chief executive officer acknowledged Thursday.

“If you live south of here and want to fly non-stop, there’s no doubt people will make the drive,” said David Barger.

The best way to limit that trend and encourage JetBlue to bolster its presence in Maine, Barger added, is for Mainers to fly out of Portland.

Barger was in Portland as part of a 10th anniversary tour that’s taking him to each of the 61 cities JetBlue serves. He used the opportunity to talk about how Portland fits into the airline’s growth plans, congestion at JetBlue’s hub in New York City and what type of service will be offered between Portland and Orlando this winter.

Barger visited an airport in the midst of a major expansion, one that has largely weathered the recession and is on track to fly roughly 1.7 million passengers this year, on par with 2009.

Since arriving in Portland four years ago, JetBlue Airways has become a key contributor to the vitality of Maine’s largest airport. It has five daily flights in and out of Portland to its new terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. It carried 294,000 passengers last year, roughly 17 percent of all Portland traffic.

JetBlue began serving Portland at a critical time. The city had just lost its only low-cost carrier, when Independence Air went under. Many Maine fliers were traveling to Boston, or to Manchester, N.H., to take advantage of discount fares being offered by Southwest Airlines.

The “JetBlue effect,” as it was called, helped reverse those trends. Legacy airlines such as USAirways and Delta began trimming fares to New York City — the jetport’s top destination — as soon as JetBlue’s expansion was announced.

“I don’t think it’s overstating it to say JetBlue made a transformational change at the jetport,” said Steve Hewins, vice president for travel at AAA Northern New England. “I honestly think it has been a major factor in the jetport’s resurgence.”

JetBlue’s flights to New York, and AirTran Airways trips to Baltimore-Washington, D.C., help maintain competition for Portland’s top two destinations, according to Paul Bradbury, the jetport’s director. And while JetBlue isn’t as aggressive with pricing as it once was, in Bradbury’s view, it offers a value experience for many fliers, such as providing video screens on each seat and not charging for the first checked bag.

“They have a very good product at a reasonable price,” he said.

JetBlue has been able to maintain that product at a time when some other airlines have struggled. The publicly-traded company was profitable last year. And while it showed a loss in the first quarter of this year, the airline bounced back in the second quarter with record revenues and its highest-ever operating income. It also has been ranked first in overall satisfaction for low-cost airlines for the past six years by J.D. Powers and Associates, just ahead of Southwest.

JetBlue’s competition with Southwest is now unfolding in Boston, where JetBlue recently has become the top carrier at Logan International Airport. JetBlue is constrained from growing much in the busy New York City airspace, and has chosen Boston as a place to diversify its route system. It will begin offering service this November between Boston and Reagan/National in Washington, D.C., Portland’s second most popular destination.

“That’s where the resources are going,” Barger said of Logan.

More travelers are discovering this, Hewins said, which puts more pressure on Portland

Hewins noted this example: A Maine traveler, who booked a flight this week to Los Angeles on Sept. 2, could catch an evening flight on JetBlue from Portland through JFK to Long Beach, Calif., for $399. A direct flight from Boston was listed at $296.

“It’s the kind of thing where you could wind up competing against yourself,” Hewins said.

JetBlue’s expansion in Boston is being watched closely by Bradbury.

Average fares at Logan remain higher than those in Portland, he said, but Portland can’t match the schedule frequency or the advantage of direct flights out of Boston. The growth of reliable, hourly bus service between Portland and Logan’s terminals leads some fliers to take advantage of what Boston has to offer, at Portland’s expense.

Bradbury would like to see JetBlue offer a direct flight from Portland to Washington, D.C., but Barger said that won’t make economic sense now. He wants Boston service to mature first.

And Barger said JetBlue is still considering what type of flights will link Portland to Orlando this winter. JetBlue presently offers a direct flight on Saturdays. Last winter it competed with a comparable direct flight offering by AirTran. Maine vacations in Florida also were reduced by the lingering recession.

“It was good, but it wasn’t great,” Barger said of the economics.

Overall, Barger said, Portland performs well for JetBlue, but any future expansion will be driven by sustained demand.

“My message is, we’re looking for local support,” he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]