Michael Beener drove 40 miles from his home in Orange County to board an Airbus SAS A320 in Burbank, fly across Southern California to Long Beach, get off, get back on and return to Burbank. The cost: $8, plus gas and parking.
“I fly on a regular basis, and this is one of the ones to go down on the books,” said the 30-year-old advertising designer. “It’s just for the heck of it.”
The JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) “Carmageddon Fly-Over” trips he took were tied to the weekend shutdown of a 10-mile (16- kilometer) section of Interstate 405, the busiest stretch of freeway in Los Angeles, to allow for the demolition of an overhead bridge. The event was labeled Carmageddon by local media, and residents were warned to stay home or use alternate routes during the closure. The work was finished yesterday, and cars returned to the freeway 16 hours ahead of schedule.
The special JetBlue flights -- two each way on Saturday between Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, north of the shutdown, and Long Beach Airport to the south -- cost $4 for a standard seat and $5 for one with extra legroom on the 150-seat A320.
“I’m not really a high-roller, so I didn’t fork out the extra dollar,” said Justin Paquette, a 28-year-old chiropractic student from Burbank. He flew one way, Burbank to Long Beach, to work at the Orange County Fair, and was planning to catch a ride home with a friend driving back at night.
The flights sold out within three hours, according to Mateo Lleras, a spokesman for the Forest Hills, New York-based carrier. With 29 miles between the two airports, they were the shortest the airline had ever scheduled, he said.
“This is a very serious business in terms of the airline industry, but we also don’t take ourselves overly seriously,” JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Dave Barger said in an interview at Long Beach Airport after taking the first of the four flights, designated Flight 405 for the interstate that was closed. “Otherwise I think air travel these days is basically a commodity, moving from A to B.”
Travelers were treated to cake decorated with toy cars in Burbank. On the plane, there were cookies frosted with the Interstate 405 logo. JetBlue provided a lunch of Vietnamese spring rolls, chicken skewers, pita and hummus in Long Beach.
Flight 405 included views of the car-free interstate, eliciting oohs and aahs from passengers used to seeing the freeway jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. “I think I saw Paris Hilton walking her dog,” one flight attendant said over the public-address system. The trip lasted 23 minutes from liftoff to landing.
“JetBlue welcomes you to Long Beach,” an attendant announced. “The local time is 20 minutes after you left.”
“I can never sleep on a flight,” complained one passenger during exit.
A group of bicycling advocates used the opportunity to race the jet from Burbank to Long Beach. They left at 10:50 a.m., an hour and a half before the flight’s scheduled departure, about the time a local passenger would have to leave for the airport, said Joe Anthony, a group member who took the flight.
“We lost,” he said, checking his mobile phone while leaving the plane. The five bicyclists arrived at Long Beach’s waterfront at 12:24 p.m., 35 minutes before the plane landed.
Later in the day, passengers returning to Burbank were warned to beware of jet lag, and the plane’s doors were held open an extra moment for stragglers. “We don’t want to leave anyone here because they wouldn’t have a way to get home,” one JetBlue worker said over the loudspeaker.
“They could always bike home,” retorted another employee. “It’s faster.”
The flight back, which reached an altitude of just 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) and gave passengers another view of the empty 405, was quicker than the one down. Jetliners usually cruise at more than 30,000 feet. It took off at 7:59 p.m., and six minutes later attendants were told to prepare for landing, and in another six minutes the plane touched down at Bob Hope Airport. Total flight time: 12 minutes.
JetBlue didn’t make money on the flights. With government taxes and fees totaling $10.70 per person, it was in the red even before paying for fuel, pilots and other operating costs.
Passengers had extra expenditures too. Parking for the day at Bob Hope Airport was $31, almost four times the amount of a round-trip ticket, and a cab from the airport in Long Beach to the waterfront was $23 before tip.
Those on board included reporters from the Los Angeles Times, CNN and other outlets doing stories on the flights as part of their Carmageddon coverage.
John Friedman, the 53-year-old owner of RSM Security Inc., an alarm-installation company in Westlake Village, California, took the trip with his 9-year-old son, Aaron. Over the course of the day, they rode almost every type of transportation available: a car to the airport, the plane south and back, two buses and a train in Long Beach, and a boat to visit the Queen Mary, the retired luxury ocean liner docked there.
While Friedman planned to spring for the most expensive seats, he found the only $5 ones available were over the plane’s wings, which wouldn’t afford his son the view he wanted.
The price was right, said Beener, the Orange County advertising designer. “This opportunity will probably never exist again.”