This morning, American and JetBlue are rolling out round two of their Northeast Alliance partnership, and this round is when we start to see some of the more exciting promised changes in New York and Boston. American gave me some exclusive time with Chief Revenue Officer Vasu Raja yesterday to get a better understanding of exactly what is being announced, and how this is just part of a broader move by American (along with JetBlue) to improve its position in the industry.
As Vasu explained it, everything coming out today falls into three categories, and unsurprisingly, these are all customer-focused. You might think it’s surprising, but remember, American really wants to hammer home that this partnership is in the best interest of travelers, so it is trying to prove itself with every move it makes. This is particularly important now, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that the US Department of Justice is still sniffing around this deal. (American confirmed and I absolutely believe that this was all planned before the WSJ story ran.)
This announcement is packed with news ranging from a new JFK – Delhi flight to the elimination of 50-seaters in New York and the shifting of slots from one airline to be operated by the other. Let’s look into these moves as they fit under Vasu’s three categories.
Organic Network Growth
The whole point of this alliance is to give American a more defensible, relevant presence in the Northeast while strengthening JetBlue to be able to compete more broadly as well. Individually, the networks didn’t do that, nor could they without either a massive model change for JetBlue or an impossibly-lucky raining down of new slots for American.
Today, American is announcing market growth in two directions, and we’ll start with international.
- JFK – Delhi 3x weekly, starts Oct 31 and goes daily during the holidays
On the one hand, we have the introduction of New York/JFK – Delhi. This, Vasu explained, is for a couple reasons. First, it’s a huge visiting friends and relatives (VFR) market, and VFR markets are doing best these days. But it’s also about having an enormous local market in New York that it can tap into. This doesn’t work without the locals plus a connecting network, and JetBlue creates that opportunity.
That brought up several questions for me. First, is JetBlue already delivering these gains on existing flights? I was surprised when Vasu told me “in terms of raw bookings, JetBlue has become our largest codeshare partner in the one or two months it’s been out there.” He said not to read too far into this since JetBlue’s leisure focus and the big reduction in international have impacted the numbers dramatically. But he did add that, as an example, American is seeing bookings roll in on off-peak days to the Caribbean from jetblue.com, and these are bookings it hadn’t seen before. So something is working.
Second, I wondered what this meant for Philly. Notably, I had seen over the weekend that American canceled the Philly – Athens flight this summer — one of the only European destinations that will allow Americans to visit — while keeping JFK. Is this the end of Philly? Vasu says no. He said that fleet issues are responsible for the Athens flight going away — remember, they did retire all the A330s — but he still sees Philly as an important connecting hub, especially to Europe in the summer. New York will cater more to locals, though it needs some feed to work.
If you think this sounds a lot like the American/TWA strategy of 20 years ago where Chicago would be for locals and St Louis would be for connections, then we think alike. Vasu says it’s different since this is an international focus vs domestic. I suppose we’ll see if that’s true or not, but I’m not convinced. As we all know, the St Louis connecting hub strategy didn’t make it very far.
Over on the domestic side, it’s more interesting with all of these new American flights starting on November 2.
- Boston – Cincinnati 3x daily on E-175s
- Boston – Los Angeles becomes all A321T
- Boston – St Louis 2x daily on A319s
- Boston – Toronto 3x daily on an E-175s
- LaGuardia – Houston/Intercontinental 3x daily on A319s
- LaGuardia – Oklahoma City 1x daily on an E-175
- LaGuardia – Omaha 1x daily on an E-175
In addition, JetBlue will add a ton of new flights from Boston, JFK, and LaGuardia with the LaGuardia flights using American slots.
- Boston – Asheville starts Summer 2022
- Boston – Kansas City starts Q2 2022
- Boston – Milwaukee starts Q2 2022
- Boston – San Antonio starts October 2021
- Boston – Vancouver seasonal starts Summer 2022
- JFK – Kansas City starts Q2 2022
- JFK – Milwaukee starts Q2 2022
- JFK – Puerto Vallarta starts Q1 2022
- JFK – San Antonio starts October 2021
- JFK – San Pedro Sula starts December 2021
- JFK – Vancouver starts Summer 2022
- LaGuardia – Jacksonville starts October 2021
- LaGuardia – Nashville starts Q2 2022
- LaGuardia – New Orleans starts Q1 2022
- LaGuardia – Portland (ME) starts Summer 2022
- LaGuardia – Sarasota starts October 2021
- LaGuardia – Savannah starts October 2021
- Increased frequencies on LaGuardia – Boston, Charleston, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, Tampa, West Palm Beach
What we have here is the long-promised realignment of slots. As of now, the slot usage waiver at JFK and LaGuardia expires on October 30, so if airlines don’t use their slots after that — barring an extension — they can lose them. American has been operating well below capacity at LaGuardia, so it will add new LaGuardia flights of its own in addition to having JetBlue operate others — JetBlue will be up to more than 50 LaGuardia flights per day — especially on leisure-oriented routes where the airlines are better off with a bigger airplane with all-coach seating.
I should note that some of these JetBlue markets are flown by American as well, with Nashville jumping out at me. I’m particularly curious what happens there, because this is a market that’s important for business and leisure. American can have its smaller aircraft in the market to run higher frequency and carry business travelers while low leisure fares can be pushed on to JetBlue. It gives plenty of options for travelers, if that is indeed the plan. I’ll have to see what JetBlue does to its schedule.
The natural question now is… what goes away? And the answer is… I have no idea. Let’s put it this way. American is currently scheduling July 2021 at about 40 percent of the number of departures it operated from LaGuardia in July 2019. The eventual full LaGuardia schedule will look different for American, and the same will be the case for JetBlue at JFK. Some flights that existed before the pandemic won’t be back, but it was bound to be different anyway as the airlines slowly build back their schedules in a different world.
Lastly, I have to mention that little Boston – LA blurb there. You read that right. American will put all of its Boston – LA flights on the A321T which has primarily operated JFK to LA and San Francisco during its life. This low-density layout is for the business traveler that’s willing to pay big money, but now in this partnership, American and JetBlue can alternate flight times and coordinate schedules. That means American can cut back on JFK transcons and redirect the airplanes elsewhere. This means everyone flying between Boston and JFK and Los Angeles and San Francisco will have flat beds up front, whether on the A321T or the JetBlue Mint A321. (American, I should note, will still not fly Boston – San Francisco, but they will both operate the other three markets.)
Vastly-Improved Customer Experience
Ok, ok, so some of the changes in this category actually bleed over from the last one as well. But the overall idea is that an American or JetBlue customer flying in the future in New York and Boston will have a better experience in the future than in the past. That’s broad, but there are some key points.
First, as promised, American has ditched all the 50-seat aircraft at JFK and LaGuardia. Those airplanes are all coach, but the bigger airplanes that will replace them ensure that any American flight from JFK or LaGuardia will have First Class and Main Cabin Extra.
If travelers aren’t on American, they’ll fly JetBlue which does only have coach, but it has a much nicer product than the old 50-seaters. There will also be more flights to more places where people actually want to go these days using the JetBlue leisure configuration.
The airlines have also given in and decided to put a behind-security connector in place between JetBlue’s Terminal 5 and American’s Terminal 8. This seems like a basic requirement, but I remember when the partnership was first announced, it didn’t sound like the airlines were convinced they needed it. Now they know better. This will make connections between JetBlue and American far better than from JetBlue to any other international partner that operates from Terminal 4 today. Lower minimum connecting times will open up a whole bunch of better options not just between JetBlue and American but also between JetBlue and other partners in Terminal 8, like Qatar.
Massive Amount of New Connectivity for Customers Outside the Northeast
American seems to have adopted its own version of Northwest’s vaunted Heartland strategy. Northwest used to dominate much of the Upper Midwest including places like Madison or Indianapolis where it could easily provide the best connecting service through its three hubs plus it would add nonstops where it mattered.
American is now doing the same thing but in a broader geography. The first place we’ve seen this is in Austin where American has opened up a focus city with nonstops to several places. Combined with Alaska’s strong west coast nonstops and JetBlue’s northeast flights, American can become far more relevant there. But Austin is just the start.
As noted in the release, this idea extends to Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus (OH), Indianapolis, Memphis, Nashville, and Raleigh/Durham, among others. The increased service by American combined with the rolling back of service by Delta and United puts these in play. We’ve seen bits and pieces of this over the last couple weeks. There is the new Raleigh/Durham – Nashville flight and the Saturday-only flights into Orlando and the Caribbean from some of these very non-hubs. More is coming.
This strategy sounds scattered. US Airways succeeded by focusing on where it did best, the hubs where it could dominate. American’s strategy today is the complete opposite. But then again, US Airways was never going to be the carrier of choice in some of these cities thanks to its size and lack of a mid-continent hub. American doesn’t have those issues.
Now we have an airline with strong and growing connectivity from mid-size cities to its hubs that can be combined with Alaska and JetBlue offerings to the coasts in order to create an imposing presence.
American continues to press ahead with massive change and big strategic leaps. I don’t imagine all of these network moves will work, but some of them certainly should, assuming the financial model between American and its partnerships works as intended. We’ve talked about this before, and that really is the key. So far, Vasu and American seem happy with the way it’s working. Judging by JetBlue’s moves, it feels the same way.
Not only does this create opportunity for American and JetBlue, it forces Delta and, to a lesser extent United, to open up new fronts as they try to figure out where to focus their efforts. American on the offense while others have to decide how to react? That’s certainly a change.