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New York Daily News

Puerto Rico’s New Jet Setters Low Air Fares Keep Families Connected


July 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 New York Daily News, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Suitcases of all sizes and hundreds of boxes were stacked on carts at the snaking check-in line for the San Juan-bound flights at Kennedy Airport the other day.

The passengers stood patiently - mothers, fathers, grandmothers and kids chatting in Spanish as they waited to bring a piece of New York to their homeland.

It is a scene repeated nearly every day at JFK's Terminal 6, where JetBlue, the wildly successful low-cost airline, has redefined the notion of jet-setters.

"Home is half here, half in New York," Cruz Coln said last week as she sat on the curb in front of her sister's house in Coamo, Puerto Rico.

Coln, 55, her husband and two grandchildren had brought a fan from their South Bronx apartment to the modest pink home they own in Coamo, a struggling village where men gather at corner bars on weekends to cool off with a beer while their wives stay in, caring for the kids.

It was her second trip this year to Coamo, the town where she was born.

Coln was 13 when she moved to New York City. She worked in delis and garment factories before she met Hipolito Coln, 57, in a Newark nightclub 30 years ago. They had been born in Coamo - population 920 - but never before met.

The Colns always made sure their New York-born kids cultivated connections to Puerto Rico, first by learning Spanish, then by learning about the island and the relatives they have there. For the past 10 years, Cruz and Hipolito Coln have been working to make sure their grandchildren, Kassandra Florentino, 12, and Luis Coln, 11, learn the same.

Christmas trip

"To know your family and your roots, there's nothing more important," Cruz Coln said. "The only way to do it is to bring the children here, year after year after year."

This year, there will be a Christmas trip to Coamo for the Colns, another stay in the pink house where Cruz Coln was born and where her mother lived until she died two years ago. The tickets on JetBlue are cheaper, she said, so the family will be able to afford the treat.

"I'll never sell this house," Cruz Coln said. "Home is in New York, but home is also here, remember?"

For two years, American Airlines held a virtual monopoly on the New York-San Juan route, but a hefty $450 average ticket price, coupled with the slumping economy, made it almost impossible for people like Coln to afford frequent trips to Puerto Rico for the entire family.

More daily flights

But in May 2002, JetBlue ventured into the promising market and launched three daily, nonstop flights between JFK and Aeropuerto Internacional Luz Muon Marn in San Juan. On June 12, the airline added two more, then another on July 1. Round-trip tickets can sell for as low as $200.

Clarissa Rosado, vice president of Diaz Tirado, a travel agency that caters primarily to people in the Bronx, noted that JetBlue's presence has forced American Airlines to drop its fares.

"American at one point really had their fares to San Juan super high, but they now offer some good discounts to compete with JetBlue," Rosado said. "They have to do something because right now, from what I can tell, American is losing a lot of customers to JetBlue."

From May 2002 to March 2003, JetBlue enjoyed an average 75% occupancy on its flights between New York City and San Juan, peaking at 93.4% in July 2002, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a branch of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Javier Leon, 36, of East New York, Brooklyn, took his two daughters to Puerto Rico via JetBlue last week, the first time in five years he has taken Christina, 13, and Shelby, 10.

"It was just me traveling to Puerto Rico for a while, but since JetBlue sells the tickets so cheap, I'm taking the girls, too," Leon said. "It's almost the same price I used to pay just for me with American."

It is not only JetBlue's low ticket prices that attract travelers. Though it serves no meals during flights, the JFK-based airline offers 24 channels of live satellite TV from each of its leather seats, including Telemundo, which broadcasts en espaol. On flights to Puerto Rico, though, the service lasts for only an hour before the plane begins flying over international waters and service is interrupted - a problem that the airline is working on.

In her carry-on bag Thursday, Wanda Vzquez, 29, stuffed the leather wallet, cuff links and linen handkerchief she bought in the Garment District for her father, Francisco Vzquez, a Pentecostal pastor who lives atop a hill in the Puerto Rican pueblo of Pea Pobre, at the eastern edge of the island.

Vzquez, 29, planned to spend a week in Pea Pobre with her husband, Ramn Andino, 35, and their two children, Christopher, 10, and Adriana, 4 - taking part of the trip to find a second home.

Childhood sweethearts who married right after she moved to New York City 10 years ago, Vzquez and Andino came close to buying a small house just down the hill from her father's, but another buyer moved faster and snatched it off the market for a bargain $10,000, she said.

"We already have a car," Vzquez said, pointing to the dark green Mazda Protege parked at the end of her father's driveway. "We got it last year so we could move around, but we still need the house."

Different lifestyle

Life in their three-bedroom apartment in Hamilton Heights, Manhattan, could not be more different than in Pea Pobre, where the closest school is a 15-minute drive from the center of town and tropical storms knock out power so frequently that most houses have a generator.

From Francisco Vzquez's living room, one can see banana, papaya and avocado trees, and hear the chickens clucking in the coop. On clear days, the island of Viques can be spotted in the distance, jutting from behind a hill.

"The only view from my house is the next-door neighbor's window," Wanda Vzquez quipped.

But the town has its advantages: In Pea Pobre, doors need not be locked, children can play freely on the streets until late, neighbors are relatives or friends so close that they may as well be family. The cost of living is cheap and a lot of what is eaten grows right in people's backyards, like the passionfruits Vzquez's stepmother, Conchita Santana, 52, picked on Friday to make ice cream and juice.

"There's good and there's bad in both places," said Vzquez, who manages a Chicago-style hot dog cart at Madison Square Park.

"When we move here and I miss the good things of New York, I can always take a plane and be there in a few hours."

Caption: COREY SIPKIN DAILY NEWS ALL ABOARD Diamond Torres (l.) waits with Ramn Andino and his wife, Wanda Vzquez, and their son Christopher Andino at Kennedy Airport for flight to Puerto Rico.Taking it easy on the island Adriana Andino, 4, hangs around her grandfather's house in eastern Puerto Rican pueblo of Pea Pobre. During a happy reunion in Cuamo (left), cousins Cruz Coln and Cruz Santiago (from l. to r.) embrace shortly after Coln returned to the island. Coln's granddaughter Kassandra Florentino (below), 12, was all smiles outside her house in Cuamo as she chilled out with some neighbors.

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