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Super Fly

A new local airline with a Mormon captain, SoHo mannerisms, and cheap fares has been cleared for takeoff from JFK. But will JetBlue -- fueled by a cool $130 million -- find love at first flight?

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A high-pitched squeal suddenly rips the air, the sound of a great expanse of sheet metal being shredded. Has something gone terribly wrong? We're passengers inside a factory-fresh JetBlue aircraft, cruising a mere 2,000 feet over the skyline of Manhattan. Heads swivel in frantic surprise. Then, in a moment, the piercing howl gives way to the molar-rattling rumble of a Learjet that has just passed overhead, eerily close to the thin aluminum skin of our Airbus A320.

The Learjet tailing the Airbus at such close range is carrying a camera crew working for the same company that shot aviation footage for Top Gun. Today, they are charged with filming some soaring, lyrical, over-the-skyline snippets to advertise JetBlue, perhaps the most ambitious low-cost start-up since Dallas-based Southwest made its debut in 1971 -- and the most self-consciously cool, ever.

This is JetBlue's maiden voyage; the A320 arrived from the factory in Toulouse, France, just six days ago and has logged only ten hours of flight time. In the cabin, a small Sprite-fueled frat party hosted by JetBlue's boyish 40-year-old chairman, David Neeleman, is in progress. A dozen friends, lieutenants, and well-heeled investors are pawing through bag lunches and scanning the horizon for the Learjet as if they were ball-turret gunners on a B-17 looking for Messerschmitts ("Over there! Two o'clock!").

The Airbus is creeping up the Hudson River at about one fifteenth the normal cruising altitude -- low enough to feel like a $400-an-hour helicopter tour of Manhattan. "I was trying to get the pilot to buzz underneath the Verrazano bridge," jokes Neeleman, a seventh-generation Mormon who moved here from Salt Lake City just a few months ago and is viewed by many as the brightest star rising in the airline business. But in person, Neeleman seems as eager and gangly as a suburban paperboy, pacing the empty aisles when he's not gesticulating wildly with a gigantic submarine sandwich and tossing off quotations from Airplane! ("What's your vector, Victor?"). He could be a 17-year-old raiding the fridge after a late night out with the guys. Moments later, Neeleman is cupping a cell phone to his ear, pretending to place a call. "I just want to see if this thing really does throw off the navigation system," he deadpans.

"If this whole thing isn't an airline, at least it's a sitcom," cracks one JetBlue employee.

When the director needs the Airbus to dip into the orangy sunset, it dips. When he needs it to climb toward the wispy, cirrus-streaked heavens, it climbs. Just north of Washington Heights, the Airbus lists a steep 40 degrees, a maneuver that a commercial jetliner just doesn't seem built to do. As the plane swoons, there are gasps all around. Neeleman assumes a surfer's crouch in the aisle, arms outstretched and teetering as he finds his balance. The Airbus levels out over New Jersey's Palisades, and Neeleman smiles the broad, unabashed smile of a young man who is very happy to be riding the wave he's on.

In view of the vast quantity of cash and ambition that has been invested in its launch, analysts are calling JetBlue "the mother of all start-up airlines." On February 11, the Kennedy-based airline will flutter to life with an enormous market capitalization -- $130 million -- shattering the previous high achieved by National Airlines, founded in Las Vegas in 1998 with a $50 million stake put up by two casino companies. George Soros's Quantum Fund has kicked in $40 million; Weston Presidio Capital, the private investment fund that manages, among other things, a portion of Harvard University's endowment, has thrown in $30 million. Chase Capital is on the hook for $20 million.

Just one week after the phones opened, JetBlue was already reporting more than $1 million in ticket sales for flights to Buffalo and Fort Lauderdale. By the end of the year, JetBlue, now headquartered in Kew Gardens, will have expanded its routes to nine other cities, including Tampa, Rochester, Syracuse, and Burlington, Vermont. Eventually, the airline will serve as many as 44 cities, including red-eyes to the West Coast.

Last-minute business travelers looking to keep their costs down no longer have to shuttle off to MacArthur Airport in Islip, Southwest's tri-state toehold; on JetBlue, they'll be paying up to 65 percent less than the average fare charged by the majors. Traveling at midweek, a round-trip flight from New York City to Buffalo on American currently costs $252, with a Saturday stay-over. On democratic, wholly economy-class JetBlue, the round trip would be $98 -- no stay-over required.

Low fares will not be the only bait: JetBlue will be the first-ever budget domestic airline to launch with a fleet of brand-new aircraft, all 25 of them 162-seat Airbus A320s, all furnished entirely with cushy leather seats fitted with television monitors. JetBlue will be the first airline in the world to offer every passenger live TV -- 24 channels of DirectTV's satellite menu, from CNN to ESPN to Animal Planet.

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about this New Yorkiest of airlines is that it will be as urbane as a Stoli cosmopolitan. At JetBlue's new home, in TWA's old domestic terminal, the gates will be tricked out like a Greene Street loft, with retro-hip tufted banquettes, brushed-steel lamps, and walls covered with framed old LP covers from the hi-fi years, like Elvis's Blue Hawaii. JetBlue is promising play areas for the kids, strewn with Barbie dollhouses and rigged with pint-size plastic basketball hoops. Tongue-in-cheek destination clocks near the gate, labeled BUFFALO, NEW YORK CITY, and FT. LAUDERDALE, will all show the same time, of course.


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