Last week, JetBlue made the surprising announcement that it would add 30 new routes to its network. The surprise was not because JetBlue has had to pull back significantly due to its main focus cities being in the northeast but rather because JetBlue hasn’t shown any interest in trying to make bold network moves in some time. But is this really a bold move?
It feels like an act of desperation. Precisely because JetBlue has been hit so hard in New York and Boston, it has to throw darts at the wall to try to find something that will work. If it does work, then great. JetBlue has saved some more jobs when October 1 rolls around. If not, well, it’s worth a shot anyway, especially between now and October 1 when labor is basically free.
These changes fall into three categories, and I’ll discuss them all. Allow me to present JetBlue, The Play.
Act One: West Side Story
JetBlue loves to crow about how it’s New York’s hometown airline. That may be technically true since it is based in Long Island City, but it also requires ignoring that New Jersey exists.
JetBlue’s primary home at JFK is great for people on Long Island as well as those in Brooklyn. It’s no LaGuardia, but it’s not bad for people in Queens. Same goes for those on the east side of Manhattan. But for those on the west side of Manhattan and throughout northern New Jersey, JFK is far and inconvenient at the best of times.
JetBlue knew that JFK wouldn’t solve all its problems, so it expanded into LaGuardia, Westchester, Newburgh, and yes, Newark.
Newark service began in October 2005, but it was confined to flights to Florida and the Caribbean, the easiest markets around. In 2011, it added its only market outside the area when it started Boston, but that was more about the Boston focus city than New York.
While JetBlue kept a token presence, a lot was happening. Virgin America moved in and challenged United on transcon flights. Over time, Southwest, Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier all moved in. Yet JetBlue just watched.
Now, JetBlue is going into the market in a much bigger way.
The initial standouts here are LA and San Francisco. These markets are more business-focused, and by using its Mint flat bed product, JetBlue is certainly gunning for that traffic. But it’s also looking for high-end leisure and there’s plenty of that in these markets too. Since Alaska took over Virgin America, it has pulled back and pushed its First Class product down to more of a domestic-style product. This should push Alaska out entirely, if that airline is smart.
Remember how United said it was a mistake to leave JFK for transcon flights? Well, now JetBlue can do both while United still can’t.
The rest of these routes are a fight against United to try to grab as much leisure traffic as possible. JetBlue doesn’t have a recognition problem in New York, and that should make it easier to fill these airplanes. United may try to fight back, but then again, that may not be worth it, Mint flights excluded. With Southwest gone from the airport, JetBlue is the only tweener lying between United and the ULCCs, and United may very well prefer that.
Act Two: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Beyond Newark, JetBlue has tried to focus on its Florida strength. Flying from the northeast to Florida is the easiest way to make money in this business. COVID? Hurricanes? Florida Man? None of that matters. People will fly down to Florida no matter what.
Here’s what JetBlue is adding, outside the Newark flights.
There is a lot going on here, but the most notable add here is the decision to fly from Philly to four cities in Florida (plus San Juan) starting August 6. This market actually feels a lot like Newark. It’s a bottomless market where Southwest has failed to gain much traction — it used to serve 6 cities in Florida from Philly but now only serves Orlando more than daily with limited options to Ft Lauderdale and Tampa — and the ULCCs have started to move in. JetBlue again wants to be the tweener.
What exactly is American going to do? Worst case, American beefs up capacity and pushes hard to get JetBlue to fail. Not much will have been lost if that happens, but if it truly is a bottomless pit, then JetBlue will at least make its airplane productive.
The October 1 adds are a different animal. Outside of beefing up Florida focus cities with longer-haul flights (SF to Orlando and both Seattle and Portland to Ft Lauderdale), JetBlue is looking to send people from spots up north down into Florida. Most of these have ULCC competition, so JetBlue is trying to provide a higher level of service for the discriminating Providence traveler.
In general, these are big markets, and that’s important. JetBlue only wants to operate A320s here. It can fly lower fares with more seats full versus an Embraer 190, and it needs that, because these are going to be cheap fares.
Act Three: Anything Goes
Lastly, we have three oddball markets that I find perplexing. JetBlue has opted to go twice daily into three business markets from JFK that it has avoided for years:
- Dallas/Fort Worth (July 23)
- Detroit (July 23)
- Minneapolis/St Paul (August 6)
What is the airline thinking? Well, it’s probably thinking:
- I have a lot of unused slots at JFK right now, and these have always been further down the list
- Are American and Delta really a position to try to punch me in the face right now?
This is the same rationale that it can use in Newark. If the big guys are too preoccupied, maybe JetBlue can get away with a couple of flights without much fight.
Then again, maybe not. But the only way to find out is to take a swing.