PORTLAND — Southwest Airlines marked the start of service at Portland International Jetport with a news conference Monday morning, and celebrated by flying a young girl and her family to San Diego as a charitable gift through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“Having Southwest service in greater Portland and the Maine markets is, in many ways, a feather in the cap for the airport,” City Manager Mark Rees said.
Southwest, the nation’s largest domestic airline, announced last October that it would offer nonstop flights to and from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The new flights replace service by Southwest subsidiary AirTran Airways, whose flights between BWI and Portland ended Saturday.
The Southwest service, which began Sunday, includes three round trips Sunday-Friday, and two round trips on Saturdays.
Southwest is serving the Jetport with 143-seat Boeing 737 jets, while AirTran used 117-seat Boeing 717s. The larger planes mean there are 500 more seats available for air travel from Portland each week, Southwest Executive Vice President Ron Ricks said Monday.
Aboard inaugural Flight 419 Monday was Emersyn Rowles, a 7-year-old from Lewiston who has ataxia telangiectasia, a rare, life-threatening genetic disorder. Through Make-A-Wish, she and her family were being flown free between Portland and San Diego, where Emersyn’s wish is to see butterflies and beaches.
Make-A-Wish grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions; nearly 70 percent of the wishes involve air travel, according to the foundation. Southwest has donated flights through Make-A-Wish nationally for the past several years, flying 625 children and their families on vacations in 2012.
Baltimore-Washington is the only destination Southwest serves from Portland. But once there, passengers will be able to take connecting flights to 61 other Southwest destinations – a 25 percent increase over the number previously available to Portland-Baltimore passengers via AirTran, Ricks said.
He pointed out that could mean more visitors for the Portland area.
“If you can get to all the places on this map from Portland,” Ricks said, “then all those places on the map can get to you.”
Besides Portland, Southwest began service Sunday to four other cities: Charlotte, N.C., Flint, Mich., Rochester, N.Y., and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The five-city opening was the largest service launch in Southwest’s 41-year history, according to the airline.
Welcomed by the traditional spray from Fire Department water cannons, Southwest Airlines Flight 1739 taxis to a gate at Portland International Jetport Monday morning. Southwest began daily service in Portland on Sunday.
Seven-year-old Emersyn Rowles and her family, of Lewiston, are presented with a commemorative boarding pass for their flight from Portland to San Diego on Monday, donated by Southwest Airlines through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.