The writing has been on the wall for years, and now JetBlue has finally done it. It is pulling the plug on its Long Beach (LGB) operation entirely after October 6. This is the right move for the company. Unfortunately, that right move has been followed up with the wrong one… a switch of those same short-haul flights up the road to ultra-competitive Los Angeles International (LAX). Apparently JetBlue just can’t live without a West Coast strategy, even if it’s a bad one.
JetBlue Ends Its 20 Year Run in Long Beach
There have been many ups and down in JetBlue’s 20 year stint in Long Beach, but it’s been all downhill since the city council — pushed by misguided local residents — inexplicably shot down the airline’s attempt to get a customs and immigration facility to allow for international flights from the airport. With that option gone, JetBlue found itself with few opportunities to turn Long Beach into something that actually worked for the airline. When Southwest surprisingly entered the airport, JetBlue briefly tried to fight. Then it realized that wasn’t worth it, and the shrinking began.
Today, JetBlue holds slots for 17 daily flights from Long Beach, and it will now be very interesting to see who, if anyone, picks them up. My money is on Southwest being about the only one interested this time around. Breeze is another possibility in theory, but I don’t think there’s a chance it will be flying in time to utilize them. But back to JetBlue…
Before the pandemic, JetBlue was planning on operating only 15 daily flights starting April 29 as follows:
- Austin (1 daily)
- Boston (1 daily)
- Bozeman (2 weekly)
- Las Vegas (3 daily)
- New York/JFK (13 weekly)
- Portland (1 daily)
- Reno (1 daily)
- Salt Lake (19 weekly)
- San Francisco (2 daily)
- Seattle (2 daily)
Those all end on October 6. Boston, New York, and Portland go away completely. The rest move to LAX, though some at a reduced frequency.
The New LAX Strategy
Barring pandemic-related adjustments, here’s what the airline is planning to operate at LAX in the Fall.
- Austin (1 daily)
- Boston (EXISTING MINT SERVICE 5 daily, 4 Saturdays)
- Bozeman (3 weekly seasonal starts December 17)
- Buffalo (EXISTING 4 weekly)
- Fort Lauderdale (EXISTING MINT SERVICE 4 daily)
- Las Vegas (2 daily)
- Newark (EXISTING MINT SERVICE 3 daily)
- New York/JFK (EXISTING MINT SERVICE 12 daily, 9 Saturdays)
- Orlando (EXISTING 4 weekly)
- Reno (1 daily)
- Salt Lake (2 daily)
- San Francisco (2 daily)
- Seattle (1 daily)
This means the airline will run about 33 or 34 flights a day. But why?
The existing service at LAX makes perfect sense, and that includes the recently announced Newark flying. Mint has been a great performer, and that is JetBlue’s strength. When JetBlue flies to its focus cities of Boston, New York, Fort Lauderale, and Orlando, it works. JetBlue’s product matters more on longer haul flying, and it can tap into demand both in cities where it’s strong on the East Coast and in the local LA market where it’s providing real value that can even transcend loyalty.
The same can’t be said for this short-haul network. In Long Beach, JetBlue found it was basically irrevelant for intra-west flying except to a small group of people who preferred the airport’s convenience over better frequency elsewhere. Fares were low, and JetBlue had no chance of growing into a significant operation. There were plenty of reasons to leave Long Beach, but very few reasons to go to LAX.
Yes, fares at LAX are higher, in most markets at least. Here’s a look at average fare for nonstop carriers in LAX vs JetBlue in Long Beach for all of 2019.
Bozeman is a significant outlier, but keep in mind there are so few flights operating in that market that this isn’t really useful data. In the other markets, save Las Vegas with its absurd number of airlines — JetBlue will be number 10 — LAX sees a premium of about $5 to $15. Keep in mind, however, that many of the other airlines have First Class so that will bump the fare up a bit for them. Also, keep in mind that JetBlue often will be the last choice in most of these markets with a lack of frequency and loyalty in the area. That means JetBlue is going to have to discount to fill those airplanes.
Oh, and let’s also not forgot the crushing expense of operating at LAX as compared to Long Beach. The fiscal year for LAX began on July 1 and, for example, landing fees more than doubled from $5.08 per thousand pounds up to $11.01. There’s a temporary reprieve due to COVID, but with operations expected to remain depressed for some time, fees will be skyrocketing there, making short-haul operations even more difficult.
Strategy, Straight From JetBlue
So… why the heck is JetBlue doing this? Can it really not live without a West Coast strategy? I spoke with Scott Laurence, Sr Vice President of Airline Planning for the airline to try to better understand the rationale.
Scott explained that JetBlue had wanted to make this move for a long time. It just couldn’t get more than the 2.5 gates it uses at LAX today… until COVID moved things around. JetBlue will be getting only one more gate now, but it says it has plans to double flights by 2025, so that would obviously require more. Scott said that they are expecting to be able to remain in Terminal 5 as they grow and others move off to the Midfield Satellite Concourse.
JetBlue is adding all these flights with only one new gate, but how does that work? Well, with only transcons flying today, JetBlue has dead times where it doesn’t operate flights off its gates. That’s primarily early morning and later afternoon. This results in some pretty poor schedules for the short-haul, and a very heavy gate utilization, something that could be tough for an airline that struggles to run on time with those East Coast ATC delays.
It was suggested in a Twitter conversation that JetBlue might be trying to benefit from partner connections at LAX that didn’t exist in Long Beach. That would be nice icing on the cake… if there was a cake under that icing and if the times worked. They don’t. The two most popular routes for connections would probably be San Francisco and Las Vegas. Those depart from LAX at 6am and 755am in the morning and 537pm and 624pm in the evening, respectively. Those are not going to work for Asian connections.
The overall idea seems to be that JetBlue can operate as a spill carrier in the market so that a) it can say it has a West Coast strategy and b) it can preserve jobs in the region. Scott says the airline expects to stimulate the market with lower fares, and “there’s plenty of demand to go around.” That may be true, but at what fare exactly?
Competition is fierce. The LEAST competitive market is Reno which still has three airlines flying. Even there, American, Southwest, and United usually combine to fly more than 10 flights a day. JetBlue will have just one that operates in the middle of the morning. Even if American were to pull back domestically, this still has a lot of flights.
It seems to me that what really pushed this decision over the finish line is the employee issue. Scott admitted that “played in a big way in this decision… making sure we had a plan for our crewmembers.” That’s admirable in one sense, but employees are already feeling the pain right now. It seems like the time is right to build the airline for the future. That’s what employees really want; something sustainable. Working in Long Beach the last few years has been gutwrenching as rumor after rumor of the imminent demise had beaten down morale. Nobody wants to do that again.
Is there any other reason this makes sense? Well, Scott did say that other than trying to generate more cash in the short term, the airline does want to strategically position itself for the future. With A220s coming, JetBlue will have more opportunities that fit within its core, profitable strategy of flying longer hauls to the East Coast. Scott even mentioned cities like Hartford and Charleston (SC) as opportunities. That sounds straight out of the new Breeze playbook. Of course, there’s international as well with the flights down to Latin America that it couldn’t do in Long Beach. Oh, and don’t forget Hawai’i, which Scott also suggested could be an opportunity. That’s a market where those JetBlue neos could do quite well.
Even if that becomes a future strategy, it shouldn’t drive what’s happening today. There is just one extra gate being used at LAX to run these flights. I have to think that with the addition of Newark, JetBlue would be able to scrounge together enough other opportunity to keep that gate warm without trying this ill-fated short-haul strategy in the West once again.
There are plenty of reasons JetBlue could have used to rationalize this internally. Is it to be more attractive in a merger? Is it to fly longer haul routes that can’t make money today? Is it something the A220s will save? JetBlue is betting on one of those things, I guess, but it’s unclear why. I would have just walked away.