An American budget airline will decide this year whether to enter the transatlantic fray, with its sights set on lowering the cost of premium travel across the Pond.
New York-based JetBlue has been mulling over launching cheap flights to London for some time but revealed in a New Year letter to employees it will make a final decision in 2019. The airline has in less than 20 years grown an extensive route network across North, Central and South America, with a comparable offering to the likes of Ryanair and Easyjet that does not include checked baggage or the ability to amend bookings free of charge. It does, however, unlike its budget brethren offer free snacks and soft drinks to customers.
UK-born chief executive Robin Hayes – formerly an executive at British Airways – said in September that last-minute business fares of up to $10,000 (£7,848) between New York and London were “obscene”, adding: “When we see that, we know we can go into it for a lot cheaper.”
Unlike British low-cost airlines, JetBlue does offer a “Mint” business cabin on some of its planes, with lie-flat beds, but even economy seats boast healthy leg room and entertainment screens.
JetBlue’s decision to begin flights to London rest on whether the airline purchases aircraft capable of going the distance from Airbus this year. The airline currently has orders of up to 85 Airbus A321neos – an upgraded version of the A321, a plane used on short-haul flights – but can switch some options to the “long-range” version of the aircraft.
“Coming off an incredible 2018, I’m very excited about what the new year will bring for JetBlue and all of us as crew members,” Hayes wrote to staff, in a letter reported by Paxex Aero. “2019 will be a year of big decisions and moves for us.
“In 2019 we will announce our decision on the Long Range version of the A321. This aircraft could open up new and exciting markets for us.
“Our network strategy is all about strengthening our focus cities and in order to fly to some of the top unserved destinations from Boston and New York (like London), we need a longer-range aircraft.”
Services to London would likely launch from both Boston and New York JFK, and Hayes has previously stated that Heathrow would be the target airport in London, but competition for slots is high, as is their cost. A spokesperson for the airline said: “We have not committed to the LHR, or to adding Europe to our network, but that is certainly an environment that JetBlue competes well in.”
What could passengers expect from JetBlue?
As mentioned above, the airline offers an economy service with perks – such as free food and drink – that budget travellers may not enjoy in the UK.
In targeting premium travellers, JetBlue would be going head to head not only with the likes of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, but also low-cost, long-haul rival, Norwegian, which also offers a premium economy.
JetBlue’s Mint cabin is a step ahead of Norwegian’s premium cabin, however, offering lie-flat beds in closed suites as opposed to recliner seats with only 46 inches of pitch (leg room).
In economy, the spacing is generous, with “coach” seats offering 33 inches of pitch and 18 inches of width, compared to Norwegian’s economy of 31-32 inches of pitch and 17.2 inches of width. Easyjet, which operates the A320 – the smaller version of the A321 – offers 29 inches of pitch and 18 of width. JetBlue also offers free Wi-Fi on its flights.
Would they make a success of it?
There’s the rub. Last year saw a tough year for airlines flying low-cost across the Atlantic, with Primera failing, Wow air scrapping routes and Norwegian wobbling.
Hayes has said it would not be a race to the bottom in terms of fares and that JetBlue would focus on “premium fares”, adding that he admired Norwegian’s successes: “People said it could not be done, I think they are really a pioneer.”
“The transatlantic market comes down to three large carriers with huge amounts of power,” he said. “We have to move intelligently and stealthily to make sure we’re successful.”
Such a focus would mean going toe to toe with the likes of BA and Virgin, as well as well-established US carriers, while fares in economy would also have to be competitive to ensure full planes to make up for the space lost by the more expensive seats.
Simply put, low-cost airlines have to deal with the same costs – fuel prices, expensive aircraft, maintenance, airport fees – as the legacy carriers, but they have to keep fares cheap.
“It’s a hit with customers but profits are elusive,” explains aviation consultant John Strickland. “The model is based on the premise of low fares, which may be fine at peak times on any given market, but in periods of seasonally weak demand and when fuel prices are high, it spells disaster for profitability.”
He adds: “There’s a need to secure feed traffic to top up loads at quiet times but this adds cost and complexity and can be difficult to achieve.” This is far easier for legacy airlines with their powerful connecting networks.
The likes of BA can also boost revenue with their airport lounges, established loyalty programmes and business class cabins, which avoid reliance on only selling the lowest fares. Norwegian offers premium economy seating on its 787 Dreamliners, but this itself presents a conundrum. Can enough of these seats be sold to justify the space sacrificed?
It seems no coincidence that while the likes of Primera, WOW and – to a lesser extent – Norwegian, have struggled, the three low-cost long-haul airlines with the backing of a major legacy carrier (Joon, Level and Eurowings) are enjoying a less tumultuous time – protection that JetBlue does not enjoy.
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