A low cost air service with a brand new business class cabin between London and New York? As Frank Sinatra might have said: if you can make it happen, in the midst of a global pandemic when the US bans British citizens and advises its own to stay put … well you can get there anywhere .
On August 11, however, JetBlue will launch transatlantic flights that could shake up one of the normally lucrative aviation markets. The airline, one of the largest in America but without the global presence of the “big four” US carriers, will launch its first services to the UK with the promise of lowering fares, especially for air travelers. ‘business.
It seems like a gamble, but managing director Robin Hayes, a Brit himself, stressed that his airline was nothing like rival carriers, which promised to offer low fares on the transatlantic; Norwegian, for example, who went from minnow to global pioneer to bankruptcy on a similar offering.
“It’s very different from Norwegian,” said Hayes. “We fly a plane that we have always flown, and a third of our capacity is already international, to 25 countries. It is really just a small step for us.
Where Norwegian had its hopes for a rapidly growing Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet, JetBlue will cross the Atlantic aboard a narrow-body single-aisle aircraft, the Airbus A321LR. This means less seats, but even less costs. While other airlines typically use the model to maximize the number of economy seats in a single cabin, JetBlue will feature an innovative layout that includes 24 seats in its business class version, known as Mint.
The small cabin undoubtedly gives an even greater cachet to these seats: with only two per row, all have access to the corridor and their own sliding door for more privacy. And Hayes has claimed that prices will be much lower than those charged by competitors for business class, starting at under $ 2,000 (£ 1,438) for a round trip from the United States.
“The rates are going to come down in all areas,” Hayes said.
When East Coast-based JetBlue began serving the United States’ main internal long-haul corridor from New York to Los Angeles, fares fell on average by about 50%, he says, while the airline has increased the focus on comfort. “We offer low prices but with a very good product. Across the Atlantic, even in economy class, you’ll have the most legroom, the widest seat, free wifi, live TV, and a hot meal included.
So how does the company do it? Hayes’ response could be taken as the standard of an airline general manager: “We are a low cost airline, so we are very efficient at what we do, we have much lower costs than our own. traditional competitors. We are very focused on keeping our costs low.
Undoubtedly, a whole new fleet is more fuel efficient – although comparisons to “historical competitors” are often a code to pay employees less, even though people like BA have laid off staff and reduced terms and conditions for a while. the pandemic. A cost saving measure at the very beginning of JetBlue was that customer service agents worked from home long before Covid made it all the rage.
However, Hayes cited with approval the mantra of founder David Neeleman: “We want to bring humanity back to air travel. Neeleman, alas, was sacked from his post as general manager after a debacle in 2007 when thousands of JetBlue passengers were stranded in a snowstorm, a year before Hayes joined the airline.
Hayes, who deviated from his initial ambitions of being a train conductor into a senior training position at the national carrier, had moved to lead BA’s North American operations before he was offered the job offer at JetBlue. proposed. It happened when he least expected it and expected to return to London. Instead, he stayed and rose to the top position in 2015.
There was no hint of sentiment at the prospect of British flights out of Hayes. With a smaller aircraft, he said, the risks were lower in a depressed market and, he hinted, the planes could easily be pointed elsewhere. The bulk of JetBlue’s business remains in the United States, which is returning to pre-Covid levels flying at a speed that European carriers can only dream of.
Industry watchers expect the London-based firm’s initial impact to be small, with a maximum of a single daily return from Heathrow, adding Gatwick flights in late September – a schedule that could be diluted further in the event of Covid restrictions on the UK-US route Remain in place.
Aviation analyst John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, said JetBlue has a good chance of getting the route right, although it could be a rough start. “Business travelers might think I can afford two thousand dollars, but not the four or five thousand usually charged by carriers so far. The more private seating at Mint might also be appealing these days when travelers may be less interested in luxury than space, ”he said.
“But one flight per day to Heathrow and Gatwick would not normally be enough to attract these business travelers, as JetBlue is well aware, so they will want to build the schedule. “
The pandemic has at least facilitated its entry into Heathrow. The airport’s coveted landing slots are being traded between airlines for tens of millions of pounds, but the system has effectively been suspended as many flights are grounded – giving JetBlue, at least temporarily , a pass to operate.
For Heathrow Managing Director John Holland-Kaye, the arrival of JetBlue and the promise of lower fares was “fantastic… it confirms everything we have said about the benefits of expansion, competition and choice between airlines ”. Ironically, this happened when the airport operated on one runway rather than the three desired runways – but in the long run, he said, only more capacity would allow more entrants.
If Heathrow remains tight, JetBlue is looking to spread further. 26 more long-haul A321 models will be needed over the next four years, which Hayes says will see him start a London-Boston route next summer and then “expand our European footprint” to non-UK destinations. . If the fare promise goes beyond marketing, passengers hope to stay a little longer in London.