Conventional wisdom in the US is that there is a ton of demand for international-style paid premium cabin offerings between New York and both Los Angeles and San Francisco. Anywhere else? Meh, not so much. JetBlue’s expansion of its Mint premium cabin to a whole slew of new routes bucks that trend, and it could mean the beginning of a premium cabin war that sees international-style premium cabins come to several new routes. Wouldn’t that be nice?
For years, American and United slugged it out between New York and LA/SF with something considered more premium than the usual domestic First Class. About a decade ago, United stepped up its game with the launch of p.s., a more exclusive experience with an international-style onboard product. Delta had played around with international aircraft on those routes before, but they didn’t get serious about it until the JFK buildup began. American took forever, but it leapt over everyone when it rolled out its A321T just a couple years ago. The three were locked in on competing for those high dollar travelers.
While this was all unfolding, Virgin America was starting up. It went with a different plan of offering only 8 seats up front that were more of a lounger-style seat, still significantly upgraded over what everyone else was doing in the premium cabin. In New York to LA/SF, this was a competitive product and people loved it. On other routes, it was head and shoulders above the competition. The problem was that Virgin America had a lot of short routes where this kind of seat didn’t matter. With only 8 seats, it might not have been a big gamble, but it also wasn’t a threat to the status quo. Outside of the New York to LA/SF routes, it was ignored.
When JetBlue decided to join the premium cabin fun, it was late to the party. But its decision to roll out 16 flat bed seats (4 in private suites with doors) under the Mint name was a leap ahead. Initially, this was meant to make JetBlue a player in the New York to LA/SF markets that were oh-so-lucrative. It did just that. In an arms race where everyone was upping their game, JetBlue rolled out a nuclear bomb. Not only was the product excellent, but prices were much lower than the competition. It was a quick success.
For JetBlue, this made sense. As an airline with a hub in New York, it no longer wanted to be able to serve its loyal premium customers but then watch them go elsewhere for flights to LA and SF. This product kept those people onboard and won over new fans. For every other route, however, JetBlue still offered no premium cabin. Then again, the premium cabin others offered wasn’t much to write home about anyway.
Seeing the success of its Mint product on the key New York to LA/SF routes, JetBlue started getting curious. If it worked so well in those markets, why not others? Sure other markets weren’t going to have as much premium cabin demand, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t any demand. Further, JetBlue’s prices were relatively inexpensive, and there were only 16 seats to fill.
The first easy experiment was down into the Caribbean. Knowing Saturday was a low day for business travel, JetBlue shifted airplanes during peak season to fly from JFK to Aruba and Barbados. Those are markets where the flight times are long and the clientele is rich, so it seemed like a perfect fit. It didn’t take long for this to work so well that it was expanded and pushed to be year-round.
Next, JetBlue turned its gaze to Boston. Boston had long ago become a hugely important focus city, and now Mint was brought in to give JetBlue another edge. Service to San Francisco has already begun with LA and some Caribbean flying to follow. With JetBlue having such a strong presence in Boston, this seems like a natural fit. But last week, JetBlue grew again and this time it’s a bolder gamble.
JetBlue will now expand Mint to fly from JFK and Boston to Seattle and San Diego. JFK will also get a Mint option to Vegas. And in the biggest surprise from my perspective, Mint is coming to Ft Lauderdale from both LA and San Francisco.
What this means is that JetBlue sees demand for fully flat beds in markets you wouldn’t expect. Sure there’s premium demand for JFK to Vegas, and though I don’t know the schedule, I assume this might operate in the night hours, something that could help with utilization. But San Diego and Seattle? That’s a bigger stretch.
Delta tried this to Seattle from JFK before and it went away (though it’s not clear to me it won’t come back). San Diego? The last domestic international-style premium cabin I remember there was when Delta operated a flight from Phoenix years ago. (That, by the way, besides being dumb, was a great option to get to the beach when I was an airline employee in Phoenix.)
And Ft Lauderdale seems completely nuts on the surface. But when you think about how JetBlue has a growing focus city operation there with a lot of international Latin connections, then it starts to sound more interesting.
So far JetBlue has had tremendous success with Mint, and with every success, it continues to try to bite off a little bit more. If you don’t think there’s someone at Delta watching this very closely, you’re nuts. If JetBlue continues to grow this and make it profitable, then the big guys are going to end up taking action as well. There’s too much at stake for JetBlue to have this opportunity to itself.
My hope is that this means we see all kinds of airlines offering true premium cabins on longer domestic flights. Kudos to JetBlue for being the one willing to try it. We should all be hoping for it to be a rousing success.
[Original photo via JetBlue]