Breeze Airways won’t begin commercial passenger service in and out of Vero Beach Regional Airport on Feb. 15 as it initially announced.
Instead, flights will start here on Feb. 2.
“We were able to launch a bit earlier,” Breeze spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones said last week, “so we did.”
Early last week, in fact, the carrier’s website was offering Feb. 2 flights connecting Vero Beach and Hartford, Conn., for round-trip fares as low as $128. Round-trip flights between Vero Beach and Westchester County, N.Y., on Feb. 3 were selling for as low as $148.
The fares for both routes were based on standard seating, which Breeze refers to as “Nice.” The airline also offers “Nicer” seats, which provide slightly more legroom, a snack and one checked bag, as well as “Nicest” seating – the carrier’s version of first-class accommodations, which includes two checked bags.
Fares increase with the levels of seating and service. A round-trip flight in the “Nicest” section can cost $738 per person.
“When we first started talking to the Breeze people last summer, they wanted to launch on Dec. 15, probably to get the holiday traffic,” Vero Beach Airport Director Todd Scher said. “They were pushing us, but we needed time to make the necessary upgrades to our security program.
“We couldn’t give them the go-ahead until we met the federal requirements,” he added. “That was the biggest issue for us.”
Scher said the Vero Beach airport has been operating at the Transportation Safety Administration’s “intermediate” security level, which covers only the terminal building and was sufficient for the smaller jets used here by Elite Airways until the boutique carrier suspended service last summer.
To accommodate the Breeze’s larger jets, however, the airport needed to upgrade its security measures to the “highest” level, which Scher said covers the airport’s entire perimeter.
“We were doing that to some degree before, but we were left to our own judgment as to what we needed to do,” Scher said. “Now, we need to meet the TSA requirements, and they’ll be inspecting what we do.”
Scher said the security upgrades won’t be noticeable to the public, but they will be costly – so much so that the city, which owns and operates the airport, told Breeze representatives the airline needed to help cover the expense.
The upgrades are expected to cost “just under $200,000” annually, Scher said, adding that the number is only a “very rough” estimate.
“We told Breeze we didn’t have the money to do it, and they offered to help,” Scher said. “That was one of the problems we had with Elite. They wanted to bring in larger aircraft, but they didn’t want to pay for the upgraded security.”
Elite hasn’t flown in or out of Vero Beach since June 30, but the airline’s president, John Pearsall, said the Maine-based carrier intends to resume service in the first quarter of 2023 and that he’ll issue a press release “right after New Year’s.”
If Elite returns to Vero Beach in the coming months and wants to use larger jets, Scher said, the airline would be required to pay 35 percent of the costs to upgrade the security program.
While awaiting Breeze’s arrival here, Scher said the city will embark on its plan to transform the two banquet rooms at C.J. Cannon’s restaurant – located inside the airport’s terminal building – into an indoor baggage-claim area.
“The city didn’t take away those rooms,” Scher said. “Cannon’s wanted to get out of the banquet business, and we wanted the space. So, they’ll get a reduction in rent, and we’ll get the indoor baggage-claim area we need.”
Apparently, the marriage between Breeze and Vero Beach is off to a promising start.
In November, less than a month after Breeze announced it was adding Vero Beach to its route map, Edmondson-Jones said the airline’s executives were “thrilled” with the early response from the community here.
“The early indications are that the flights are selling really well,” he said. “We started getting calls as soon as we announced. It’s obvious Vero Beach is a very popular destination.”
Scher said Breeze indicated it would initially book flights into early May, but the airline’s website is already offering flights into September.
“So they must be doing well,” he said.
Edmondson-Jones said Breeze will monitor its ticket sales to and from Vero Beach, and will add flights and routes to meet the demand.